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In my last two posts I explored the alternative options for explaining the historical evidence (i.e. the evidence that we get from, among other things, treating the early Christian writings as we would any other historical documents, not assuming that they are inspired scripture) related to the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Every possible explanation falls under at least one of the alternatives that I considered there, and aside from the hypothesis of the resurrection (which I have yet to evaluate), all of them either have difficulty explaining the evidence, or are implausible, or both.
My contention now is that the resurrection hypothesis suffers neither of these weaknesses. Is it not particularly implausible, and its explanatory power relative to the alternatives means that it far outweighs all other options as the best explanation for the evidence.
The Resurrection Hypothesis
The resurrection hypothesis is that Jesus, after dying on the cross and being buried in the tomb, was supernaturally raised from death by Yahweh, and that he appeared to his disciples to convince them of his resurrection.
First, I will discuss the plausibility of this hypothesis. Given all the other arguments from natural theology that I have considered, I find it not at all implausible that God exists, which would mean that supernatural intervention in history is at least possible. (I intend to respond to arguments against the existence of God after completing this series of posts, and I do not believe they are successful in overcoming the theistic arguments. So belief in God is quite reasonable.) This means that the only potential implausibility in this hypothesis is whether there is a supernatural being identifiable as Yahweh with the motive to raise Jesus, not whether there is a supernatural being per se.
In my last post I noted that, in the cultural context of that time, miracles were conceived of as signs, typically signs that authenticated the message of the one who did the miracle. (This is something that Jesus himself taught.) In the case of the resurrection, the miracle itself was not a public event. Rather, what was seen was the effect of the miracle present in Jesus himself: his resurrected life. Hence, Jesus was the central and only salient figure in the miracle of the resurrection, and the disciples clearly understood it as affirming the truth of his claims. It seems very reasonable that any supernatural being would know that this is what the resurrection would communicate.
Therefore, since Jesus claimed to have a unique, unprecedented relationship with Yahweh (over and above just being a moral teacher), and was sent to his death because of this, the obvious motive for the resurrection is to vindicate and validate Jesus’ life and claims. And there is no other natural motive for the resurrection that I can think of.
A complete lack of a motive – the theory that the resurrection was a completely random supernatural event – raises the question of why this has apparently only happened to one person throughout history. I argued in my last post that “causing mischief” does not really fit, and I am not sure that there are any other options for motives that are completely tangential to Jesus’ message. And “deceptively affirming Jesus’ message” doesn’t seem very plausible to me either, for a couple of reasons.
One of those reasons is that, from my perspective, the Christian worldview makes the most sense of reality. If it is the result of a grand deception, then what is behind the façade? I find it hard to imagine a coherent motive for deceptively validating Jesus’ message. The other is that we have reasons from natural theology to believe in a supremely good and powerful God as the source of all reality. If the being that raised Jesus is to be identified with this God, then it is not plausible that God would engage in deception of that kind.
If on the other hand the being that raised Jesus is some other supernatural entity, then that being would be created by God and constrained by his power. But if that being’s motive was to deceive, I find it implausible that God would allow such a deception to be validated by that kind of miracle – arguably the one miracle throughout all of history that we have the best evidence for.
Thus, I believe the only plausible motive for a supernatural being to raise Jesus from the dead is to genuinely (not deceptively) vindicate him and authenticate his identity and message. (Or at least, the only plausible motives include that motive as a part.) Because Jesus claimed a unique relationship with Yahweh and taught that Yahweh was the one who raised him from the dead, affirming Jesus’ message involves accepting or appropriating that identification.
This means the only supernatural being who plausibly would have this motive is the God revealed by the reasoning of natural theology. Yahweh was conceived of by the Jews of Jesus’ day as the greatest of all gods, the God and creator of the whole universe – both it’s natural and supernatural realms – and the only being truly worthy of worship. He was ascribed goodness, justice, compassion, power, and knowledge to the utmost degree. No created supernatural power could genuinely accept that identity.
So then, is it plausible that God, the unique perfect being and creator of all other reality, would raise Jesus from the dead and so reveal himself as Yahweh, the God of Israel?
I don’t think it is implausible. If God created embodied moral agents like us humans, it is not unreasonable to think that he would want to make it so that his creatures could be in a right relationship with him. And if Jesus’ identity and message is true, that is what his death and resurrection was ultimately about.
The only good objection I can see at this point is that it is implausible that God’s self-revelation would be so particular – coming (for the most part) through one specific people group in one geographic location for two thousand years prior to Jesus’ resurrection, and then having to be spread from the geographic location throughout the world by human agents over the two thousand years following.
That objection deserves a response, but I don’t have the space to fully answer it here without getting off track. But I will discuss it when I explore some of the major objections to belief in God, such as the problem of divine hiddenness, the problem of religious pluralism, and the problem of exclusivity. So stay tuned.
But by way of brief response, the fact that we can know, roughly, what some of God’s intentions are (such as to be in relationship with his creatures) does not imply that we can predict the means by which he will choose to accomplish them. His knowledge, and in particular his foreknowledge, so exceeds ours that we are simply not in a position to accurately evaluate God’s providential decisions over history.
Another important criteria when assessing candidate explanations in abductive reasoning is the degree of parsimony, or simplicity, or the degree to which the theory is ad-hoc. The resurrection hypothesis is successful in this criteria as well. The hypothesis explains both the resurrection appearances and the empty tomb, and it does so by postulating just one event (the resurrection) and one entity (God) – and we have independent reasons to believe in that entity from other theistic arguments.
Neither is the motive ascribed to God by this hypothesis ad-hoc – it flows naturally from the radical claims that Jesus made about his relationship with God. Really, the resurrection hypothesis is the most obvious and straightforward explanation for the evidence.
Accord with Accepted Beliefs
Good hypotheses should avoid contradicting previous well-established beliefs, if possible, and the resurrection hypothesis really has no problem here. The existence of God and the possibility of miracles does not contradict any of the beliefs I have explored about the fundamental nature of reality or its physical and mental constituents. (That men do not rise from the dead naturally is not contradicted by an instance of one man rising supernaturally, for example.)
I could go into the a priori objections against miracles by the likes of Spinoza and Hume, but to be honest, I find those objections to be obviously misconceived, and they’ve already been successfully answered by others. (William Lane Craig surveys and responds to these a priori objections in this article, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on miracles has a good discussion as well.)
Explanatory Power and Scope
Finally, the resurrection hypothesis has high explanatory power for the evidence, and a broad explanatory scope over the evidence. In other words, the resurrection hypothesis explains the greatest amount of evidence compared to the other hypotheses, and the evidence that we have is far more likely given this hypothesis than it is given others (relative to the plausibility of those hypotheses).
As already mentioned, the resurrection hypothesis simply explains both the resurrection appearances and the account of the empty tomb. It does so in a way that is naturally consistent with the details of the evidence: accounting for the bodily nature of the resurrection appearances, the group appearances, the origin of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection and their bold behaviour, the conversions of the “hostile witnesses” Paul and James, and so on.
Arguably, the explanatory power of the resurrection is so high that it overcomes any reasonable degree of implausibility that might be assigned to it: see the essay by Tim and Lydia McGrew, for example, which uses Bayesian reasoning to demonstrate the incredibly high likelihood of the resurrection hypothesis given the evidence. (That essay also contains a good discussion about the impact of the interdependence of the disciples’ testimony on its evidential force.)
There are only a couple of challenges that I can see to the explanatory power of the resurrection hypothesis. They come in the form of two questions. One, if Jesus was raised from the dead, why did he leave? And two, why hasn’t he come back?
There have probably been a lot of Christians throughout history who have thought that things would have been so much easier if Jesus had just stayed on earth rather than ascending into heaven 40 days after the resurrection. (Beginning with the original disciples, at least before Pentecost: “Lord, will you now at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”) But Jesus himself gave us at least a hint of the reason why he left: his spiritual presence is more important than his physical presence, and his departure is an important signifier of that. And there very well could have been downsides to his remaining on earth (it may have ended up tying Christianity too much to a national entity, for example).
Ultimately, Jesus’ departure is really an instance of the problem of divine hiddenness, which I will discuss further in the future. But I might also note (similar to what I’ve already said) that if the resurrection occurred and Jesus is who he said he is, then he is God – so it isn’t implausible that he would act in ways we don’t fully understand!
Enough about Jesus leaving, what about him coming back? Specifically, why didn’t he come back in 70CE when Jerusalem was destroyed, which seems like it is when he predicted his return would be during the Olivet discourse? (See Mark 13, for example.) Some critics of Christianity say that this is a fatal flaw in believing in Jesus – if he predicted that he would return in 70CE, and he didn’t, then he can’t be from God, so the resurrection never happened and Christianity is false. In that case, Jesus was just a failed apocalyptic prophet.
There are a number of responses to this problem, and I think at least some of them answer it quite satisfactorily:
- One possibility is that it is an incorrect interpretation of the text to say that Jesus predicted his bodily return to earth immediately after the fall of Jerusalem. (See, for example, the orthodox preterist interpretation.)
- The idea of an “eschatological delay” was actually a familiar one in Jewish apocalyptic literature of that time period, so the possibility that Jesus’ return would occur later than expected would itself not be foreign to the original audience of the Olivet discourses in the Gospels.
- Some scholars suggest that biblical prophecy often includes implicit conditions on the fulfillment of that prophecy, and that this explains why Jesus didn’t return in 70CE even when he predicted that he would. (I myself am not sure what to think about this one, but I haven’t looked into it very far.)
So the charge that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet is debatable, and simply does not carry enough weight to overturn the resurrection hypothesis. As for the more general question on why Jesus has not come back yet, that is another case where we simply aren’t in an epistemic position to pass judgement – we lack God’s foreknowledge.
Based on the plausibility and high explanatory power of the resurrection hypothesis, compared to the alternatives, I believe it is quite evident that the resurrection is the best explanation for the events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, I would say that it so outweighs the other hypotheses in these aspects that, not only is it more probable (given the evidence) than any individual alternative, but it is more probable than the disjunction of all the alternatives.
(The argument for my last statement would go as follows. I have demonstrated in my last two posts that there are a finite number of alternative explanations besides the resurrection, all of which have very low plausibility or very low explanatory power, or both, and that the resurrection hypothesis has at least reasonable plausibility and very high explanatory power. Thus, a Bayesian analysis will show that the posterior probabilities of the alternatives are all very low, leaving the lion’s share of the posterior probability space to the resurrection hypothesis.)
You might disagree with that – admittedly, there is some level of subjectivity in these kind of judgements. But the evidence for the resurrection is certainly powerful enough that we can be rationally justified in believing it, on the basis of inference to the best explanation.
So what does it mean if the resurrection hypothesis is true – if Jesus of Nazareth was raised from death as his disciples proclaimed? It means that God has acted in history. It means that the God who is revealed in his creation has also revealed himself to ancient Israel as Yahweh, and now to the world through his unique Son, Jesus. And since Jesus’ disciples learned from him on earth both before and after his resurrection, and were commissioned by him to proclaim his message, it means that some form of Christianity is almost certainly true.
That concludes my exploration of the arguments for God’s existence. In the next section of my blog, I will be exploring the arguments against God’s existence. I feel that at least some of these do carry weight, but I hope to show why I believe that there are adequate responses to them, so that ultimately the arguments against are not weighty enough to overturn the arguments for.
In my last post, I began exploring the different possibilities for how we might explain the evidence that we have about the events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Evaluating the various alternatives, I argued for the conclusions that:
- the crucifixion and burial really happened,
- the tomb really was found empty on the third day, and
- the reports of the resurrection appearances cannot reasonably be explained by invention, lie, hallucination, or mistake – leaving the alternative that Jesus really was alive following his crucifixion.
Now I will explore the remaining possibilities for what happened in those days, continuing from my last post.
Alternatives: The Fate of the Body
(5) Assume that there was a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea. Then, either 5.1.1 or 5.1.2:
(5.1.1) After the crucifixion, the body thought to be of Jesus was not placed in a generally known location (where by generally known, I mean known to at least some of Jesus’ followers and at least some members of the Jerusalem community). (Unburied)
(5.1.2) After the crucifixion, said body was placed in a generally known location, in which case either 5.2.1 or 5.2.2:
(5.2.1) On the first day of the week following the crucifixion, the body was still where it had been buried. (Remained Buried)
(5.2.2) On the first day of the week following the crucifixion, the body was not still where it had been buried, in which case either 5.3.1 or 5.3.2:
(5.3.1) The body was alive (and so either moved under its own power or with assistance of someone or something else). (Alive Post-Crucifixion)
(5.3.2) The body was dead (and so someone or something else moved it), in which case either 5.4.1 or 5.4.2:
(5.4.1) The body was moved by supernatural forces or entities. (Supernatural Mischief)
(5.4.2) The body was moved by natural forces or entities, in which case either 5.5.1 or 5.5.2:
(5.5.1) Non-human natural forces or entities moved the body (animals, an earthquake, etc.). (Natural Forces)
(5.5.2) Humans moved the body, either 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199, or 188.8.131.52:
(184.108.40.206) Friends of Jesus moved the body. (Friendly Theft)
(220.127.116.11) Enemies of Jesus moved the body. (Hostile Theft)
(18.104.22.168) Neutral third-parties moved the body. (Third-Party Theft)
This set of alternatives is about what happened to the body that was crucified, in order to explain the reports of the empty tomb. I have phrased things to leave open the slight possibility (which I will consider with the next set of alternatives) that Jesus somehow escaped from the crucifixion, meaning, since a crucifixion definitely happened, that someone else was crucified in his place. But whether it was Jesus or just someone thought to be Jesus who was crucified, the body still needs to be accounted for.
The hypotheses that the body was not buried in a generally known location (may it was thrown in a common grave by the Roman soldiers, and nobody noticed where they had so disposed it), or that the body remained where it had been buried, fail to explain the evidence that we have for the historicity of the burial and empty tomb accounts. So we can reject them as already ruled out by the evidence:
(5.6) 5.1.1 and 5.2.1 are false.
The hypothesis that the body was alive leads to the more interesting question of how that happened, so I’ll just note for the next set of alternatives that the explanations for how the body could be alive also need to explain how the body got out of the tomb, if it was indeed placed there. For this set, the alternatives for how the dead body could have been removed from the tomb remain to be evaluated.
Natural Forces Hypothesis
The possibility that something like an earthquake or wild animals moved the body is made implausible by details of the burial account. Since we have good evidence for the historicity of the burial account, we can reasonably accept that Jesus (or the body thought to be Jesus) was placed in a tomb cut out of the rock, which was then sealed with a large stone rolled over the entrance. These details are corroborated by all the Gospel accounts.
But this means that wild animals could not have gotten into the tomb to move the body; any kind of wind or surge of water from a storm would not have affected it either, and an earthquake that successfully moved the body (maybe by burying it under a pile of broken rocks, or swallowing it into a crack in the earth) would have resulted in some level of destruction to the tomb as well.
But there is no evidence that the tomb was destroyed like this. And if it had been destroyed, the empty tomb accounts would have almost certainly reflected this. (That is, supposing a giant crack in the ground wouldn’t instead have produced the belief that God was confirming his curse against Jesus by taking his dead body right down to Sheol.)
The hypothesis that aliens moved the body would also fall under this alternative, but we can easily reject that possibility as implausible and ad-hoc. We have no good reason to think that aliens exist, or that it would be feasible for them to travel to our planet and so subtly interfere in human affairs even if they did exist, or that they would have any motive to do so if they could.
Thus, we can reject 5.5.1.
Theories that someone moved the body after it had been buried, which I’ve called “theft” hypotheses after the classic objection that the disciples stole the body, are similarly implausible in light of the evidence.
The possibility that the disciples stole the body is part of one of the oldest alternative explanations for the resurrection evidences: the conspiracy hypothesis. It requires that the disciples lied about the resurrection and the reason for the empty tomb, since one or more of them knew that the whole thing was false. (And if it was not all of them, it fails to explain the resurrection appearances as well.) So it faces all the weaknesses of the false testimony hypothesis that I discussed in my last post. In particular, it is entirely ad-hoc to suggest that the disciples had any motive to do this, and it is implausible that they would go on to willingly face suffering and death for the lie.
This hypothesis faces even further difficulty, of course, if Matthew’s account of the guard at the tomb is historical, for then the disciples would have needed both to get past the guard and to roll away the stone in order to move the body.
Similarly, enemies of Jesus would have had no motive to move his body after he was dead: by that point, he had been dealt with. As for neutral third-parties: if, for example, graverobbers had thought that a rich man was buried in the tomb instead of Jesus, they might have gone through the bother of rolling the stone away (assuming the guard didn’t pose a problem), but finding only the body of a crucified man, they would have just left it there.
Oh, here’s a novel suggestion! Graverobbers rolled the stone away on Friday night, found nothing of value and left the body there; then wild animals came and dragged the body away; then an earthquake rolled the stone back over the entrance; and then the guards didn’t bother to check if there was still a body there when they arrived Saturday morning. Oh, and them someone rolled the stone away again so that the women could discover the empty tomb on Sunday. And then, presumably, the disciples had coherent and detailed mass hallucinations which convinced them, not that they were seeing visions, but that Jesus had actually risen from the dead.
(That is what we call a fantastic, ad-hoc hypothesis.)
The other suggestion for a neutral third-party who might have moved the body is none other than Joseph of Arimathea. This theory postulates that Joseph did not actually care about Jesus, but only placed him in his family tomb because it was close by and time was short before the beginning of the Sabbath. But then he moved the body to a common graveyard later, since the criminal was unworthy to be buried in his tomb.
This hypothesis is fairly deficient. It ignores the evidence that we do have for Joseph’s motives, and postulates different motives for which we have no evidence. The time frame is difficult: since the women discovered the empty tomb early in the morning on Sunday, Joseph would have had to move the body as soon as he possibly could after the Sabbath for this explanation to work. If he despised having Jesus in his tomb so much that he took the earliest opportunity to move him, why bury him there in the first place? Did he also bury, and then move, the two criminals crucified with Jesus? This is all the more implausible since we have evidence that Jewish custom prohibited moving a body once it was buried.
But the greatest deficiency of this hypothesis is that it implies Joseph and his servants knew where the body of Jesus was located after it was moved. Which means that unless Joseph (and others who had helped him move the body) suddenly died before Pentecost, the disciples would not have been able to successfully preach the resurrection. Joseph, not a friend of Jesus in this scenario, would have simply corrected them by pointing out that he had moved the body. It doesn’t matter if the body was decomposed and unrecognizable by that point: it would have been the word of an influential member of society against the word of some country bumpkins.
So 5.5.2 is an implausible alternative as well.
Supernatural Mischief Hypothesis
Finally, we have to consider the possibility that some supernatural entity or force removed the dead body from the tomb (without actually raising that body from the dead). This faces the same difficulty as the theory that a supernatural power gave the disciples visions of Jesus: we have no reason to think that there are any supernatural powers who would have a motive to remove the body. If the power is not Yahweh, it is completely out of the blue. If the power is Yahweh, he either would have no reason to deceive the disciples (if Jesus was not who he said he was), or he would have no reason to skip the actual resurrection (if Jesus was who he said he was).
So there is really no reason to believe that 5.4.1 is true, and it seems unlikely in the absence of a coherent motive to attribute to the supposed supernatural entity.
Therefore, all of the alternatives aside from 5.3.1 are either highly implausible, or they fail to explain the evidence that we have for the empty tomb, or both. Assuming that the remaining alternative does not suffer from those defects, I think we can rationally claim:
(5.7) 5.4.1, 5.5.1, and 5.5.2 are false.
Which means that the man that was placed in the tomb was later found alive – and either had assistance leaving the tomb or was able to do so under his own power.
Alternatives: The Fate of Jesus
(6) Assume that there was a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea. Then, either 6.1.1 or 6.1.2:
(6.1.1) On the first day of the week following the crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth was dead. (Dead)
(6.1.2) On the first day of the week following the crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth was alive, in which case either 6.2.1 or 6.2.2:
(6.2.1) Jesus had not been crucified (and so someone else had been crucified in his place). (Escape)
(6.2.2) Jesus had been crucified, in which case either 6.3.1 or 6.3.2:
(6.3.1) Jesus survived the crucifixion, either 22.214.171.124 or 126.96.36.199:
(188.8.131.52) He survived by somehow faking the crucifixion. (Fake Crucifixion)
(184.108.40.206) He survived by suffering the actual crucifixion but not dying. (Swoon)
(6.3.2) Jesus died from the crucifixion, in which case either 6.4.1 or 6.4.2:
(6.4.1) Jesus resurrected naturally. (Scientific Anomaly)
(6.4.2) Jesus resurrected supernaturally, in which case either 6.5.1 or 6.5.2:
(6.5.1) Some supernatural forces or entities other than Yahweh raised Jesus. (Supernatural Mischief)
(6.5.2) Yahweh raised Jesus. (Resurrection)
Normally, the hypothesis that Jesus was dead following the crucifixion would be by far the most plausible. The problem is that this leaves the resurrection appearances nearly inexplicable: as I’ve argued, all the other theories trying to explain the appearances (invention, false testimony, hallucination, mistake) are highly implausible and lack explanatory power. Unless the same is true of all the alternatives in which Jesus is found alive, it is rational (by inference to the best explanation) to claim:
(6.6) 6.1.1 is false.
Now I will explore the hypotheses in which Jesus is alive following the crucifixion.
Under this hypothesis Jesus somehow escaped from being crucified. But since a crucifixion did occur, this implies that someone else was crucified in his place. Barabbas is occasionally hypothesized as the actual victim, under the suggestion that Pilate or his soldiers got them confused. This, I believe, is quite improbable: it implies that Barabbas and Jesus looked similar enough to be easily confused, and that no one noticed that the wrong person had been released and the wrong person was being scourged and crucified.
(Admittedly the disfigurement from the pre-crucifixion abuse would have made recognizing Jesus more difficult – but don’t you think, even before it began, Barabbas would have been saying, “Wait! Pilate said to release me! I’m not Jesus, I’m the other guy!” And wouldn’t a brief examination have revealed the truth at that point?)
That is basically the best-case scenario for this hypothesis: any other version of it begins to look like a conspiracy theory where Pilate or some of the Roman soldiers carrying out the crucifixion happened to be secretly in league with Jesus, and helped him escape the crucifixion for inscrutable reasons. (Crucifying some poor random soul in the process.) And then it has to be the case that no one ever found out about what really happened.
Moreover, this hypothesis fails to fully explain the evidence. For the resurrection appearances, to completely convince the disciples, Jesus would have needed to fake the crucifixion wounds and pull off the miraculous aspects of the appearances – such as the ascension. (And if Jesus was a mere man and had successfully deceived his disciples of his resurrection, why didn’t he stay and become the political messiah the Jews were expecting?)
As for the empty tomb, the body of whoever was crucified and buried in Jesus’ place still had to be removed. This is a particularly salient difficulty with the escape hypothesis.
Thus, we can reject alternative 6.2.1 as implausible and explanatorily weak.
Fake Crucifixion Hypothesis
I’ve sometimes seen the conjecture that Jesus was some kind of master street magician, as a way to explain his reported miracles, and this gets extended to the hypothesis that the crucifixion was his greatest trick. This is even more implausible than the escape hypothesis, since it basically guarantees that the Roman soldiers were in on the trick. Deceptions like that require preparation and controlled conditions, and can’t have people looking too closely in the wrong places. And this hypothesis faces all the same explanatory difficulties as the escape hypothesis, at least regarding the resurrection appearances. (Since this is already a conspiracy hypothesis involving Roman soldiers, we can at least grant that this hypothesis has sufficient explanatory power regarding the empty tomb, though it certainly is lacking in plausibility.)
So 220.127.116.11 is almost certainly false.
This is the old theory that Jesus never died on the cross – he just passed out. And then he survived being stabbed with a spear, woke up inside a sealed tomb in agony with severe wounds, including injuries to his feet which would have made it almost impossible to walk. And then he still managed to escape the tomb, present himself disfigured and gasping before the disciples, and convince them, not that he had survived and was badly in need of medical attention, but that he was the glorious conqueror of death itself.
Basically, the hypothesis of surviving the crucifixion is ridiculous. It is just not a medical possibility. We have one account of someone surviving a crucifixion, and that is only because they were taken down prematurely and given the best medical attention available (and in the same account, two others who were also taken down and treated still died). The Roman soldiers could be relied upon to do their job correctly, and indeed, the crucifixion accounts record that Jesus was speared to verify that he was dead.
So the probability of survival is basically zero, and even if Jesus had survived, he wouldn’t have been able to get out of the tomb. And even if he had escaped the tomb, his appearance would not have elicited the disciples’ belief in a resurrection to immortality. If someone helped him leave the tomb and patched him up first, we have an ad-hoc conspiracy hypothesis on our hands.
And therefore, 18.104.22.168 is false as well.
Scientific Anomaly Hypothesis
This is the hypothesis that Jesus came back to life through purely natural causes. But dead men do not naturally come back to life – certainly not without intervention, given what we know about the laws of nature, and dubious even if we begin wildly speculating about Jesus having access to alien nanotechnology, or something. So we can reject 6.4.1 with ease.
Supernatural Mischief Hypothesis
The above alternatives exhaust the naturalistic explanations for the events surrounding the death of Jesus. Thus, we have to turn to supernatural explanations. This hypothesis, 6.5.1, is that Jesus was raised from the dead by some supernatural force or entity other than Yahweh, the God of Israel, with whom Jesus claimed a unique relationship.
The difficulty with this hypothesis, as we have already seen, is that it is ad-hoc. Since the only supernatural being in the religious context of this event is Yahweh, we have no reason to ascribe a motive for raising Jesus to any other purported entity. (Well, you could argue that Satan, Yahweh’s enemy, is part of the religious context as well: but there doesn’t seem to be any good motive for a being playing that role to raise Jesus, either.)
You could hypothesize that this is literally the work of a trickster deity, something like Loki. But in that case the supposed “trick” is not all that, well, tricksy. Instead of resulting in a great joke, it spawned a religion that millions of people believe provides the most coherent and comprehensive worldview for explaining reality, a religion that has benefited society in many ways. (See the series of episodes starting here on the Communio Sanctorum podcast for examples of how Christianity has been a positive influence on the world.) So it does not actually seem like something a trickster god would do.
At this point, it is relevant to note that in that culture and context, miracles were conceived of as signs, authenticating the message of the one who performed the miracle. (And in fact, miracles are commonly called “signs” in the New Testament.) They were thought of as indications of divine power, and divinities were beings that you wanted to listen to. In the Gospels, Jesus himself teaches that his miracles and resurrection authenticated his identity and message (Mark 2:1-12, Matthew 11:1-5, Matthew 12:38-42). The early Christians took the resurrection to do exactly that (Acts 17:31, for example).
Since this is the way that miracles were conceptualized, this is what Jesus’ resurrection would have communicated to the people in that context: that Jesus was who he said he was, and that the message he preached was true. It is pretty reasonable to suppose that any supernatural being in a position to perform the resurrection would have known that, and so would only have performed the resurrection if they wanted to affirm Jesus’ message.
Therefore, it really only makes sense for a supernatural power to raise Jesus from the dead if that power was affirming Jesus’ message, and therefore appropriating the identity that Jesus claimed a unique relationship with: the identity of Yahweh.
Given the evaluations of the above alternatives, I think it is quite reasonable to claim:
(6.7) 6.2.1, 6.3.1, 6.4.1, and 6.5.1 are false.
And this means that the historical evidence for the events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth points, rather strongly, to the explanation that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead.
Now, this does not prove that conclusion. And that’s because I think premises 4.5 (which implies 6.6), 5.7, and 6.7 are rational to assert only if the final alternative 6.5.2 (which implies 4.4.2 and 5.3.1) has a sufficient combination of explanatory power and plausibility to outweigh the other options. (And that is because what I am doing here is essentially an abductive argument, not a deductive argument.)
Note: to a lesser extent, this is also true of premises 1.3 (which satisfies the condition on the first statement of the remaining syllogisms), 2.3 (which implies part of 5.6), and 3.5 (which implies 5.6); and that 6.5.2 is taken to also imply 1.2.2, 2.2.2, and 3.4.2. But I find those first three premises completely rational to assert in light of the historical evidence, no matter how we evaluate 6.5.2.
In my next post, I’ll argue that 6.5.2, the resurrection hypothesis, is reasonably plausible and has high explanatory power for the evidence, so that (given the failure of the alternatives) we are justified in believing it.
In my last few posts, I have been exploring the evidence for the events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century of the common era. With this post, I want to explore how these facts can be explained. My goal here is to be logically comprehensive, so that I do not miss any possible explanations. (My method here is inspired by this essay from Andrew Loke.)
Towards that goal, I will divide the space of possibilities into a few mutually exclusive and exhaustive alternatives along six different (though somewhat interdependent) axes. Then I will look to the evidence to rule out various alternatives as highly improbable, based on their level of plausibility and power to explain the evidence, so that it is reasonable to believe that they are false. If successful, this will leave only one viable alternative in each category.
Alternatives: The Crucifixion
(1) Either 1.1.1 or 1.1.2:
(1.1.1) There were no eyewitness reports of a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea. In this case, the records that we have of such an event are later inventions. (Crucifixion Invention)
(1.1.2) There were eyewitness reports of such a crucifixion, in which case either 1.2.1 or 1.2.2:
(1.2.1) All such reports were lies or the result of unveridical experiences. (Crucifixion Mass Delusion)
(1.2.2) There was at least one genuine, veridical eyewitness report of a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea – in which case there was such a crucifixion. (Historical Crucifixion)
The evidence that I cited earlier – multiple early sources for the crucifixion, the implausibility of it being an invention because of the great shame associated with crucifixion, the lack of any evidence for an original “mythical” version of Christianity – is sufficient to make 1.1.1 almost certainly false. And at the same time, it would strain credulity far beyond the breaking point to assume that the entire population of Jerusalem at the time ended up deceived or deluded into thinking that a certain crucifixion happened when it did not. (The crucifixion is supposed to be a public spectacle, and it occurred at Passover, a highly memorable occasion. It would have been witnessed by hundreds, if not thousands of people.) So 1.2.1 is also highly implausible.
Therefore, it is entirely rational to assert:
(1.3) 1.1.1 and 1.2.1 are false.
Which means that we can conclude that the crucifixion of Jesus was a historical event.
Alternatives: The Burial
(2) Assume that there was a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea. Then, either 2.1.1 or 2.1.2:
(2.1.1) There were no eyewitness reports of the burial of the body thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth following his crucifixion. In this case, the records that we have of such an event are later inventions. (Burial Invention)
(2.1.2) There were eyewitness reports of such a burial, in which case either 2.2.1 or 2.2.2:
(2.2.1) All such reports were lies or the result of unveridical experiences. (Burial Delusion)
(2.2.2) There was at least one genuine, veridical eyewitness report of the burial of the man thought to be Jesus of Nazareth following his crucifixion – in which case there was such a burial. (Historical Burial)
Again, the evidence that I reviewed earlier – multiple early sources for the burial, the implausibility that certain details of the account (Joseph of Arimathea) would be invented, the lack of any report to the contrary – is sufficient to make it extremely likely that 2.1.1 is false. And it is even more unbelievable that all the original accounts of the burial were deluded – how would that have even happened? – making it extremely likely that 2.2.1 is false as well.
Therefore, we can assert:
(2.3) 2.1.1 and 2.2.1 are false.
Which means that the burial of Jesus is also a historical event.
Alternatives: The Empty Tomb
(3) Assume that there was a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea. Then, either 3.1.1 or 3.1.2:
(3.1.1) There were no eyewitness reports of the discovery of the empty tomb on the first day of the week following the crucifixion. In this case, the records that we have of such a discovery are later inventions. (Empty Tomb Invention)
(3.1.2) There were eyewitness reports of such a discovery, in which case either 3.2.1 or 3.2.2:
(3.2.1) All such reports were lies. (Empty Tomb False Testimony)
(3.2.2) At least one such report was genuine, in which case 3.3.1 or 3.3.2:
(3.3.1) All such genuine reports were the result of intra-mental experiences. (Empty Tomb Hallucination)
(3.3.2) At least one such report was the result of an extra-mental experience, in which case either 3.4.1 or 3.4.2:
(3.4.1) No such extra-mental experiences correctly identified the tomb as empty. (Empty Tomb Mistaken)
(3.4.2) At least one such experience correctly identified the tomb as empty – in which case the body thought to be of Jesus was buried following the crucifixion, but did not remain where it was buried. (Historical Empty Tomb)
The evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb account – the dependence of the origin of Christianity on the empty tomb, the early well-established sources for the empty tomb account, the testimony of the women, and the Jewish polemic against the resurrection – gives us strong reason to reject 3.1.1.
The other non-traditional alternatives, 3.2.1, 3.3.1, and 3.4.1, are also fairly easy to dismiss. If the original reports of the empty tomb were lies, or if they were the result of hallucinations or mistakes (for example, the women went to the wrong tomb early in the morning), it would have been easy enough to go and check the tomb to see if those claims were true (which is exactly what the Gospels show the disciples doing). In which case, unless the tomb really was empty, the whole story would have immediately fallen apart.
In order for these alternatives viable, the location of the burial cannot be known, which means that the historicity of the burial account has to be denied. But, as we’ve seen, there is strong evidence for the burial account. And even if that is granted, these alternatives still lack explanatory power. Without the possibility of verification, it is far more likely that the lie would have been found out, or the hallucination or mistake would have been quickly recognized for what it was, than it is that the story would have gotten off the ground.
On top of that, these alternatives are intrinsically implausible: there would have been no motive to lie about the empty tomb, the chance of hallucinating it is miniscule (especially considering that it was a group of women who discovered it, not an individual), and the probability of going to the wrong tomb or having some other kind of mix-up is still relatively small.
So we can very reasonably claim:
(3.5) 3.1.1, 3.2.1, 3.3.1, and 3.4.1 are false.
From which we can conclude that Jesus’ body (or at the very least, the body that was thought to be Jesus) was entombed following the crucifixion, but didn’t stay there.
Alternatives: The Resurrection Appearances
(4) Assume that there was a crucifixion thought to be of Jesus of Nazareth in the early first century in Judea. Then, either 4.1.1 or 4.1.2:
(4.1.1) There were no eyewitness reports of resurrection appearances following the crucifixion. In this case, the records that we have of such appearances are later inventions. (Invention)
(4.1.2) There were eyewitness reports of such appearances, in which case either 4.2.1 or 4.2.2:
(4.2.1) All such reports were lies. (False Testimony)
(4.2.2) At least one such report was genuine, in which case 4.3.1 or 4.3.2:
(4.3.1) All such genuine reports were the result of intra-mental experiences, either 22.214.171.124 or 126.96.36.199:
(188.8.131.52) Naturally occurring intra-mental experiences. (Hallucinations)
(184.108.40.206) Supernaturally occurring intra-mental experiences. (Supernatural Visions)
(4.3.2) At least one such report was the result of an extra-mental experience, in which case either 4.4.1 or 4.4.2:
(4.4.1) No such extra-mental experiences correctly identified Jesus as alive following the crucifixion. (Mistaken Identity)
(4.4.2) At least one such experience correctly identified Jesus alive following the crucifixion. (Alive Post-Crucifixion)
The evidence that I have gathered for the historicity of the resurrection appearances – the testimony of Paul, oral and written tradition from the early Christian movement, and the very origin of the belief in the resurrection – strongly disfavours the alternative 4.1.1. But there is some more we can say on that subject.
All the evidence points to the belief in Jesus’ resurrection appearing very early: it is attested in the creed preserved in 1 Corinthians 15, dated to within five years after the crucifixion. This can only be explained if it is something that was believed by the original disciples of Jesus, since they were certainly still around at that time.
But the original disciples were Jews, and so were not disposed towards the idea of the resurrection that they claimed for Jesus: which was not just a return to mortal life, but a resurrection to glory and immortality. Jews only believed that such a resurrection would occur to the righteous followers of God at the end of history. We can see this in the way that Jesus’ followers reacted to some of his statements:
- When Jesus was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, Martha believed Jesus was talking about Lazarus’ end times resurrection. (John 11:23-24)
- When Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection, his disciples ask about something that was thought of as an eschatological event – Elijah coming to announce the Day of Yahweh, from a prophecy of Isaiah. (Mark 9:9-11)
There was no belief in Judaism of the messiah’s death and resurrection, nor was there any belief linking the general resurrection of believers in the end times to the specific resurrection of the messiah in the middle of history. So the disciples did not get the idea of Jesus’ resurrection from Judaism.
And they did not get this idea from pagan myths, either, despite the kind of claims made by Jesus mythicists. There are no actual parallels to the resurrection of Jesus in pagan mythology – the supposed parallels are so weak, it is really laughable – and there is no plausible influence from pagan mythology onto the ideas of early first century Jews, anyways. (William Lane Craig mentions that scholars have actually come to doubt that there are any myths of dying and rising gods!)
So the invention hypothesis can be rejected. The origin of Christianity cannot be explained without the disciples claiming to have seen Jesus resurrected.
False Testimony Hypothesis
This is the hypothesis that the disciples lied about witnessing the risen Jesus. This is literally a conspiracy theory, and so is highly ad-hoc. It has to postulate motives and ideas for the disciples for which there is absolutely no evidence, in contradiction to the most plausible frame of mind that they would have been in following Jesus’ crucifixion: one of dejection and defeat, or even fear.
In real life conspiracies like this are highly unstable. It just takes one member of the conspiracy to desist and admit to the lie, and the whole thing falls apart. But that never happened in this case: we have no evidence that anyone who claimed to witness the resurrection ever recanted that claim. (And there were as many as 500 such witnesses, according to the apostle Paul.) Given the historical evidence, we cannot reasonably deny that the disciples genuinely believed in the resurrection: they staked their very lives on this claim, and their lives were radically transformed.
There is a difference between willing to die for an ideology, and being willing to die to attest to an empirical fact. (I think that line comes from Tim and Lydia McGrew’s article on the resurrection from The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.) The disciples were not just convinced of an ideology, though even if that were the case, how they became convinced of that ideology would have to be explained. All the evidence indicates they were convinced that they had personally witnessed Jesus resurrected.
So the false testimony hypothesis is really implausible. The disciples had no reason to think that they had anything to gain by lying and inventing the resurrection – Jesus had just been crucified! Continuing to promote him as the messiah and the Son of God could only have gotten them in trouble with the authorities who had killed him. It is completely fantastic to suggest that the idea of such a conspiracy would have occurred to them, or that they would have been successful in carrying it out.
So we can dismiss 4.2.1 as the explanation for the resurrection appearances.
The hypothesis that the belief in the resurrection was the result of hallucinations among the disciples is also extremely implausible.
There is no evidence that the disciples were in a frame of mind susceptible to hallucinations. Hypotheses, for example, that Peter and Paul were both wracked with guilt (Peter for having denied Christ, Paul because of inability to perfectly keep the Mosaic law) depend on controversial psychological theories in the vein of Freud and Jung. It is not really possible to conduct that kind of psychoanalysis on historical figures, anyways.
The least incredible hallucination hypotheses suggest that the experiences of the disciples were all like the experience of the apostle Paul, rather than the physical, bodily appearances described in the Gospel accounts. But that really fails to explain the belief in the resurrection and the origin of those bodily appearance narratives. What the disciples were most likely to believe from such visions, given the background of their Jewish beliefs, was that Jesus’ spirit had been assumed into heaven rather than being physically raised from the dead. Only definite experiences that Jesus had a real, solid body would have convinced them of the resurrection.
The resurrection appearances are unprecedented, not comparable to any kind of hallucinatory experience: comprised of convincing experiences of physicality, coherent appearances to groups, occurring on multiple occasions over a 40 day period in time, and happening not just to Jesus’ followers but to unbelievers as well. Nothing else parallels them.
Some skeptics have appealed to examples of bereavement visions, where a grieving person hallucinates the deceased loved one that they are grieving over. But almost universally (except in cases of mental illness, which we have no indication of for any of the disciples, much less all of them) the bereaved do not come to believe from such visions that the deceased person has come back to life. Rather, they recognize the hallucination for what it is.
So the hypothesis that belief in the resurrection originated from hallucinations is really so improbable that we could probably be justified in calling it a miracle if that is what actually occurred – that is, we are rationally justified in asserting that such a thing is just too improbable to occur naturalistically.
Supernatural Visions Hypothesis
Which takes us to the corresponding theory that such visions of Jesus occurred supernaturally: some supernatural power caused the disciples to have these experiences intra-mentally. If the power behind this event is not Yahweh, the God of Israel, this hypothesis is entirely ad-hoc: no other supernatural being is part of the religious context in this event, and we have no reason to think that other supernatural beings would have a motive to give the disciples these visions, if they existed. And the hypothesis is entirely improbable if the power is Yahweh, who would either have no reason to inflict the disciples with such a deception (if Jesus was not who he said he was) or no reason to skip the actual resurrection (if Jesus was who he said he was).
Therefore, I believe we are rationally justified in rejecting alternative 4.3.1 in both its forms.
Mistaken Identity Hypothesis
Finally, we can also rule out alternative 4.4.1, the hypothesis that the disciples came to believe in the resurrection because they mistook someone else for Jesus.
On it’s own, this theory is about as ad-hoc and implausible as they come: it postulates that someone decided to pretend to be Jesus, who was hated by the Jewish elites and had just been crucified by the Roman authorities, in order to deceive the disciples into thinking that Jesus had been raised from the dead (or that they accomplished this accidentally, and then didn’t bother to correct the disciples’ mistake). The motivation for doing such a thing is completely inscrutable – once again, there was no expectation in Judaism of a resurrected messiah, so it is anachronistic to suggest that this would have been a natural idea.
Furthermore, in order to actually convince the disciples, this person would have had to be very similar to Jesus in appearance – some skeptics have hypothesized a twin brother! – would have had to fake the crucifixion wounds, and would have had to somehow perform the miraculous aspects of the resurrection appearances, not to mention the ascension!
(The fact that corrective lenses did not exist back then, so that poor eyesight was more common, does not in my estimation increase the plausibility of the mistaken identity hypothesis. Not everyone needs corrective lenses, even back then; it’s highly likely that at least some of the disciples would have been able to tell whether it was Jesus or not.)
So the plausibility and explanatory power of this alternative are extremely low. The best bet for this hypothesis (and for all the naturalistic explanations of the resurrection appearances, really) is that some combination of factors was at play.
What if some of the disciples had experiences of mistaken identity, maybe some of them had hallucinations, and these things brought about the belief in the resurrection and were eventually embellished into the resurrection appearances that we have in the Gospel accounts? A combination of factors like this is probably the best naturalistic explanation for the origin of Christianity, in my opinion. It is not without its problems, however.
- The required confluence of multiple factors like this quickly becomes improbable, especially considering that the empty tomb still needs to be explained.
- There is no good evidence for the hypothesized embellishment of the accounts. (To really establish this point I would need to go into more detail on the historical reliability of the Gospels, which I unfortunately don’t have time to do here.)
- Any proposed combination of events that is not highly improbable seems to me that it would not be powerful enough to produce the conviction in the resurrection that the disciples had.
So this hypothesis (which, given the way I’ve structured the alternatives, falls under 4.4.1 as long as some element of mistaken identity is present) still does not have that much plausibility, for me.
Given the above evaluations, one can propose:
(4.5) 4.1.1, 4.2.1, 4.3.1, and 4.4.1 are false.
And therefore we can conclude the remaining alternative – that Jesus was alive following his crucifixion – is true. I believe this is rational to affirm as long as said alternative has sufficient explanatory power for the evidence, relative to the other options (sufficient to overcome any intrinsic implausibility that it might have).
As incredible as it seems, that is what I believe is the case. I’ll continue exploring my reasons why in the next post.
The evidence that I have been exploring in the last few posts is strong enough, I believe, that we can be reasonably certain of these historical facts:
- Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and buried in a tomb.
- His tomb was found empty on the third day following his crucifixion.
- Afterwards, people witnessed appearances they held to be of Jesus resurrected.
- Among those who witnessed such appearances were Paul and James, neither of them very friendly to Jesus or his movement prior to having those experiences.
- His disciples came to firmly believe in his resurrection, and thus, the Christian faith began.
In this post, I want to explore some of the context in which these events occurred.
In addition to accepting that Jesus existed and that he was crucified, many contemporary scholars agree on the following sketch of Jesus’ life:
- He began his ministry after being baptized by John the Baptist.
- He gathered followers and ministered in the region of Galilee and Judea.
- He spoke about the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, and preached a radical moral ethic of loving even one’s enemies. Sometimes he taught using parables.
- He was recognized as a miracle worker and an exorcist (something which is attested by all of the Gospel sources).
But one of the most interesting things about Jesus is how he thought of himself. He claimed to have a unique relationship to Yahweh, the God of Israel, worshipped by the Jews as the only true God and the creator of all things – such that his claims were perceived as blasphemy by the Jewish religious authorities. The Gospel accounts and the apostolic sermons in Acts all agree that Jesus’ death, by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans, was instigated by the Jewish religious elites because of his radical claims, and his actions in line with these claims.
This is best illustrated in Mark 14:61-64, where Jesus, after having been arrested by the temple police, is interrogated by the high priest. The high priest asks him if he is the Messiah and the Son of God. And Jesus responds:
“I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God and coming on the clouds of heaven.” – Jesus of Nazareth
With this short response, Jesus claimed:
- To be the long-awaited messiah of Israel.
- To be the Son of God.
- To be the Son of Man.
- That he would even be seated at the right hand of God.
And at this, the high priest immediately declared that Jesus committed blasphemy and deserved death. Both the claim to be the Son of God and to be the Son of Man would have been perceived as blasphemous, as I will look at further momentarily. But the claim to be seated at God’s right hand – to share God’s throne, symbolizing the authority of God himself – is understood by scholars such as N.T. Wright, Craig Evans, and Darrell Bock as being the most audacious claim here.
The synoptic Gospels all narrate this event, and it provides a clear and coherent explanation for Jesus’ death: incensed by this blasphemy, the Jewish religious elites prompted the Roman authority, Pontius Pilate, to have Jesus crucified. (The alternative explanation that is sometimes offered, that the Romans took the initiative to execute Jesus, is not substantiated by ancient sources and lacks motivation: it does not seem like Jesus was that much of a threat to Roman rule during his lifetime.) So we can reasonably take this event as historical.
Son of God
To see further what Jesus meant by his claim to be the Son of God, we can look at Mark 13:32. The majority of scholars accept this saying of Jesus as historical, since it is unlikely to have been invented by early Christians: in it, Jesus admits to not knowing the time of his eschatological return, something that is hard to square with the belief in the divinity of Jesus.
In this verse, Jesus utilizes an ascending scale of claims. No man knows the time of his return; not even the angels know; not even the Son knows: only the Father knows. So here Jesus claims to be the Son, and calls God his Father, and places the Son above humans and angels and just below the Father in this series. There is a clear implication that the Son is someone greater than angels.
In Mark 14:36, Jesus refers to God as “Abba,” a personal, familiar title for one’s father. Moreover, we can look at Matthew 11:27, which contains a saying found in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark; indicating it comes from an early source independent of Mark. In it, Jesus claims unique and exclusive knowledge of and access to God. Therefore, we have multiple sources indicating that Jesus referred to himself as the Son of God, and claimed a highly unique relationship with God.
Son of Man
As for Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man: this is actually Jesus’ preferred title for himself, as it is attested by all Gospel sources. The Gospel writers were highly unlikely to have invented Jesus’ pervasive use of the title, since outside of the Gospels and one instance in Acts, Jesus is never called the Son of Man in the early Christian writings preserved in the New Testament. And the Jews never referred to Jesus in this way. So his use of this title for himself is almost certainly historical.
The reason this title is significant is that, in Mark 14:61-64, it very clearly alludes to a figure from a prophetic vision in the Old Testament. In the book named after him, Daniel says:
“I saw, in the night, visions, and behold: with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and tongues should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away; and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” – Daniel 7:13-14
This figure in the prophetic vision is called “one like a son of man,” is described as coming on the clouds of heaven, and receives authority from God over all the earth. The phrase “coming on the clouds” is only ever used of Yahweh himself elsewhere in the Old Testament, and therefore has strong connotations of divinity.
In Jewish literature produced in the Second Temple period, such as in 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, this Son of Man is illuminated further as a figure who shares God’s throne and accepts worship (a prerogative belonging only to God, in Jewish thinking). In fact, there was great speculation about who this divine “second power in heaven” could be. (Was it Melchizedek? The archangel Michael? The special Angel of Yahweh who appears in various places in the Old Testament?) In calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus made claim to being that second power: the right hand of God himself.
In light of the above, we have good evidence that Jesus thought of himself as uniquely related to God, and we can add that to the list of historical facts at the beginning of this post.
Now that we have assembled said historical facts, we have to account for them. In order to have a coherent and comprehensive worldview, we need to find out how these facts are to be explained. That is what I will begin to do next.
In my last post, I explored some of the specific evidence for the facts that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, that he was buried, and that on the first day of the week following his crucifixion, his tomb was found empty.
What happened after that is where it gets really interesting.
The Resurrection Appearances
We have a number of sources indicating that after Jesus died, his disciples claimed to have seen him alive again, risen from the dead. And not only did they make this claim, but they truly appear to have believed it. They were transformed from men who fearfully denied and abandoned their master at his arrest, to men who fearlessly preached his resurrection in the face of opposition and even the threat of death. This evidence indicates that the disciples really had experiences that they took to be appearances of Jesus resurrected.
Writing a letter to the Corinthian church about 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the apostle Paul lists a number of individuals and groups who experienced resurrection appearances (this list can be found in 1 Corinthians 15). It is almost universally accepted as historical by scholars that Paul knew at least some of the original disciples personally, as this is attested by Paul himself, by the book of Acts, and by other Christian writers in the first and early second centuries. So Paul is certainly in a position to accurately report what the disciples claimed.
What he reports is that he received the following teaching in the form of a creed:
“That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures;
That he was buried;
That he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures;
And that he appeared to Cephas, and to the Twelve.” – 1 Corinthians 15:3-5
Historians generally date this creed to within five years following the Jesus’ death, understanding Paul as saying that he received this teaching from the apostles (including Peter, also called by his Aramaic name, Cephas) when he visited them three years following his conversion, a meeting which he recounts in his letter to the Galatians. Paul affirms that this is what the apostles were saying: that Jesus had appeared to them after being raised from the dead.
Paul adds several other resurrection appearances that he knew of to this creed: an appearance to over 500 of Jesus’ disciples at one time (speculated by some to be the appearance recorded in Matthew 28:16-17, though only the twelve are mentioned there); an appearance to James, the brother of Jesus; an appearance to all of the apostles (which apparently included more than just the twelve closest disciples, see for example Acts 1:21-22); and last of all an appearance to Paul himself. Paul explicitly notes that many of those who had seen Jesus after his resurrection were still alive at the time when he wrote his letter to the Corinthians, and the intent of this comment is obvious: the witnesses were still available to be questioned.
The Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances provide multiple independent attestation to the fact that the disciples had such experiences. There are independent accounts in Matthew, Luke and Acts, and John; and a resurrection appearance is hinted at in the empty tomb account in Mark (and some scholars believe that the original ending of Mark has been lost, so it may have recounted the foreshadowed appearance). Moreover, the apostolic sermons in Acts reference the resurrection, and they are held by most historians to be summaries of what was preached by the apostles themselves, or at least by the early Christians generally.
Finally, we have the writings of the early church fathers who succeeded the apostles in leading the church. Clement and Polycarp, who are reported to have personally known and learned from the apostles Peter and John, respectively, also affirm that the original disciples reported resurrection appearances.
So we have a wealth of evidence from the earliest oral and written tradition of the Christian church that the disciples claimed to have seen Jesus raised from the dead. But we also have historical evidence that they genuinely believed these claims: their lives were transformed by these experiences. The Gospels report that the disciples abandoned Jesus at his arrest. Peter denied ever having known him. It is unlikely that the Gospel writers invented these shameful, embarrassing accounts of the disciples’ weakness, so we have reason to believe did in fact respond to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion in this fearful manner.
Yet in only a short while, these same men willingly exposed themselves to the risk of persecution, and even martyrdom, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ – and they were willing to suffer these things not for some vague religious hope, but for maintaining their testimonies of having personally seen their risen Lord. Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, in their book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, list seven ancient sources attesting to the disciples’ willingness to suffer for what they proclaimed: the book of Acts, Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, and Origen. (All these sources are from approximately the first 200 years following the crucifixion.)
So, that the disciples of Jesus were willing to suffer for their testimony is a very well-attested historical fact, and this is only reasonably explained by their genuine belief in this testimony. But that makes it almost completely certain that they really did have experiences which they took to be of the resurrected Jesus.
The Nature of the Appearances
It is important to remark on the nature of the resurrection appearances that the disciples experienced. First, they not only occurred to individuals, but also to groups of people. In fact, most of the reported experiences were to groups. There are multiple accounts of Jesus appearing to his twelve closest disciples; there is the appearance to the two disciples on the road the Emmaus, there is the reported appearance to the 500, and we have Jesus’ ascension witnessed by a group of disciples.
Second, the appearances occurred to all kinds of people. Jesus is reported to have appeared to both men and women, to his closest disciples and to those less central among his followers, and even to those skeptical or even downright hostile towards him (Thomas, his brother James, the persecutor Paul).
Third, the appearances were bodily and physical appearances. (With the one exception of the appearance to Paul, which occurred after Jesus’ ascension. Paul’s experience, however, does not undermine the bodily nature of the other appearances, for reasons explained in this link.) The Gospel accounts are unanimous on this, as are the writings of the early church fathers. Jesus demonstrated to his disciples that he was not some mere spirit, but that he had been raised with a physical body, capable of eating and drinking, capable of being touched, still bearing the wounds of the crucifixion. This point we can also reasonably take to be historical: if none of the experiences of the original disciples appeared to be physical in this way, it is inexplicable how all of the accounts of their experiences could have been corrupted by this fabrication in such a short time.
Note that the early creed cited above, along with the Jewish concept of resurrection as involving the physical body, supports the physicality of the appearances. It says that Jesus was buried and that he was raised: the reference to the burial would be irrelevant if the original disciples believed that the resurrection appearances were merely spiritual. Moreover, Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection is physical, and he links this to the resurrection of Christ (see for example Philippians 3:21).
Fourth, it is interesting to note that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus peculiarly arose among those who had no predisposition towards such a belief at all. The Jews had no conception of a messiah who would die shamefully on a cross: on the contrary, they believed such a death was a sure sign that the person had been cursed by God. They had no conception of a resurrection to eternal life in the middle of history, instead of occurring at the end of time. When other messianic claimants failed, their followers had simply dispersed. And yet, from the earliest times following his crucifixion, the disciples of Jesus came to believe that he had been raised from the dead and exalted by God.
The Conversion of Paul
The post-mortem appearances of Jesus are made particularly interesting by the fact that they were not only experienced by those who followed Jesus prior to his crucifixion – we also have at least two reports of Jesus appearing to someone who did not follow him during his earthly life. The most dramatic of these is the appearance to Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul.
Paul changed from being a devout adherent to Judaism who zealously persecuted the early Christian movement, into a fervent member of that same movement. He went from believing that Jesus of Nazareth was a blasphemer and cursed by God, to believing that Jesus really was the Son of God and Israel’s Messiah – preaching what he once condemned as heresy. This radical conversion is attributed to an experience of the resurrected Jesus.
We have Paul’s own testimony of his conversion recounted in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10, Galatians 1:12-16, and Philippians 3:6-7. Early church fathers such as Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius quote these letters, attribute them to Paul, and attest to his accuracy, so we have reason to take these accounts as historical. There is a hint that there was a story of Paul’s conversion circulating in the early church in Galatians 1:22-23. And the book of Acts attests to his conversion in multiple passages.
Furthermore, we have multiple early sources indicating that Paul was willing to suffer persecution and death for his testimony and for his belief in Jesus, just as the original disciples were – showing that his conversion was genuine. This is reported by Paul himself, the book of Acts, Clement, Polycarp, Tertullian, Dionysus of Corinth, and Origen.
Both Paul and the books of Acts attribute Paul’s conversion to a resurrection appearance, which occurred when he was still an enemy of the Christian movement. Paul’s conversion is significant: it occurred not because Paul was drawn to the message of Christianity, but because Paul experienced something that he took to an appearance of the risen Jesus. Which means that Jesus’ resurrection was testified to by both friend and foe.
The Conversion of James
James, the brother of Jesus, became the leader of the church in Jerusalem in the first decade or so after his brother’s death. With James, as with Paul, we have a report of a resurrection appearance leading to the conversion of someone who was not a follower of Jesus during his earthly life.
The Gospels report that Jesus had a brother named James, and James is referenced by the Jewish historian Josephus in his account of James’ martyrdom. James was reportedly a pious Jew, maintaining Jewish customs and the respect of the Jewish community even after his conversion, and he became known as James the Just in Christian tradition.
We have the following evidence that James converted to Christianity on the basis of a personal appearance from Jesus:
- The Gospels hint that Jesus’ brothers did not follow him or believe in his claims during his earthly ministry. (Matthew 13:55-57, Mark 3:21, 3:31-35, 6:3-4, John 7:3-5)
- This makes sense: as a pious Jew, James very probably would have resented his older brother’s audacious claims of being the Son of God.
- But Acts reports that Jesus’ brothers were with the disciples at Pentecost. (Acts 1:14)
- Early Christian tradition reported by Paul held that Jesus appeared to James following his resurrection. (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)
- James is identified as a leader in the early church in Jerusalem. (Acts 15:12-21, Galatians 1:19)
- That James’ belief in the resurrection was genuine is demonstrated by the fact that he became a martyr because of them. His martyrdom is attested by Josephus and in Christian tradition (reported by the fourth-century church historian Eusebius).
These references show that there are multiple early sources for James’ conversion, and given the report of the appearance to James (passed down by Paul) we can be reasonably certain that such an experience was the cause for his conversion.
Given all the above, we have good historical evidence that following Jesus’ death, a number of people, (including Jesus’ closest disciples as well as Paul and James) had experiences which they took to be appearances of Jesus raised from the dead – and that these experiences were powerful enough to convince them that the resurrection had indeed occurred.
In my next post, I will explore the evidence for one further historical fact that provides important context for the events surrounding Jesus’ death and post-mortem appearances. Then I will begin to look into how these facts might be explained.
My last post commenced a series exploring the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I will look at the evidence we have for seven facts, and then examine how we can explain them. The relevant facts are:
- Jesus was crucified.
- His body was buried.
- His tomb was found empty.
- The disciples had experiences they believed to be of the resurrected Jesus.
- Paul’s life was changed, reportedly because of an experience of the resurrected Jesus.
- James’ life was changed, reportedly because of an experience of the resurrected Jesus.
- Before his death, Jesus claimed to have a unique relationship with God.
In my last post I also presented a few reasons for accepting the historical reliability of the New Testament writings. (Only briefly, because so much has been written on that subject elsewhere.) Again, the argument is not that these writings are Scripture and therefore they are reliable – that would be circular reasoning. Rather, when we treat them as we would any other historical documents, we find that there are indications of historical reliability, so that we have reason to trust them.
The general historical reliability of the New Testament is sufficient to establish the above facts, but it is worth looking into them in more detail, so that is what I will begin doing here.
Jesus Was Crucified
We have a number of accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, most obviously in the Gospels, but the event is also referenced in the letters of Paul, and there is really no good reason to doubt that it occurred. There are some among the “Jesus mythicism” camp who claim that the Gospel accounts are later inventions, and the early references in Paul’s letters were mythical rather than historical statements. Frankly, these mythicist claims are about as well-regarded among historians as are flat earth claims among physicists, but it is good to look at a couple of reasons why this is the case.
First, Jesus is clearly thought of as a historical figure, not a mythical figure, in the letters of Paul. Paul writes that Jesus was a man born of Jewish descent who had real flesh-and-blood brothers. Paul had even met at least one of these brothers, James, in person. (Tim O’Neill goes into more detail about Paul’s reference to James in this post on his excellent “History for Atheists” blog.) And for that matter, Jesus is also clearly represented as historical in the Gospels.
Second, the idea that Jesus was crucified is extremely unlikely to have been invented, for the simple reason that crucifixion was regarded as an incredibly shameful and humiliating way to die. Roman writer Cicero called crucifixion so horrendous that it was unsuitable for Roman citizens to even contemplate. Jews held crucifixion to be a sure sign of having been cursed by God. For early Christians to invent a crucifixion for their Christ would have been asking for ridicule.
Third, there is simply no evidence that any early “mythical” form of Christianity ever existed. We have writings of opponents of Christianity and writings defending orthodox Christian beliefs from various heresies, and none of these even come close to hinting that there was ever a time when Christians did not believe that Jesus lived and died (and lived again) in the early first century.
On top of all that, we have clear references to the crucifixion of Jesus in non-Christian accounts, principally those of Josephus and Tacitus. That these two secular historians record this event (less than a century after the fact, and corroborating details of the event such as the trial under Pilate, and also the origin of Christianity in Judea) is strong evidence of its historicity.
(Incidentally, from the information in the Gospel accounts we can place the crucifixion on Friday, April 3, 33 CE, at around 3:00pm.)
Jesus was Buried
The burial of Jesus is widely considered to be among the most well-established facts about Jesus, taking second place after the fact of his crucifixion. (His baptism takes third place, incidentally.) We have multiple early sources for the burial:
- The passion narrative (theorized to be an oral tradition forming one of the sources used in writing the Gospel of Mark, dated to within 7 years after the crucifixion) includes the account of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, with details about the manner of burial and the kind of tomb used.
- The additional sources used for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke corroborate the details of the burial. (These additional sources are recognized as independent from the Passion narrative by most scholars.)
- The Gospel of John corroborates the details of the burial. (John is recognized as an independent source by most scholars.)
- The early Christian creed preserved in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (dated to within 5 years after the crucifixion) states that Jesus was buried.
- The sermons of the apostles in Acts, for example in Acts 13, mention the burial. Though written down by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, these are very likely to have been summarized from what the apostles actually preached.
There are parallels between the passion narrative in Mark, the early creed in 1 Corinthians, and the apostolic sermons in Acts which scholars take to be indications of their historicity. (They all follow the same basic outline: Jesus was crucified, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared.) That is, these parallels make it likely that the independent oral traditions used in the different sources all developed from what was actually being said in the early first century about the burial of Jesus.
Thus, there is multiple, independent, early attestation of the burial; good odds in favour of historicity. But on top of that, one of the strongest arguments for the historicity of the burial is the identity of the person who is reported to have done it: Joseph of Arimathea.
It is highly unlikely that Joseph of Arimathea is a Christian invention. The early Christians were not really on good terms with the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council: they accused the religious elites of having engineered the death of Jesus by judicial murder. Hence, there is very little chance that Christians would have invented an account speaking so positively about a member of that council.
Occasionally, skeptics reject the burial account as implausible because in a typical Roman crucifixion, the body would be left to hang on a cross and rot, and then be disposed of unceremoniously in a common grave. However, we have evidence that it was normal for the Jews to have the bodies taken down and buried, a practice which developed from the command in Deuteronomy 21:22-23, and there is a passage in Josephus’ The Jewish War which gives evidence that the Romans allowed the Jews to do just that. So the burial account really is not all that implausible.
Thus, we can be reasonably certain that after his crucifixion, Jesus was buried, and moreover, that he was buried by one Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb cut into the rock, with a stone rolled over the entrance.
The Tomb Was Found Empty
The Gospels report that on the Sunday after Jesus’ crucifixion, his tomb was found empty by a group of women who were among his followers. This fact can be reasonably established as historical for the following reasons.
First, the historical reliability of the burial account supports the empty tomb account. According to the burial account the location of Jesus’ tomb was known, since he was buried by a prominent member of the Jewish religious council, and his burial was observed by some of his women followers. But in that case, Jesus’ tomb must have been empty by the time the disciples began proclaiming that he had been raised from the dead. Otherwise, their proclamation would not have gotten off the ground.
Neither the disciples nor anyone else in Jerusalem would have believed in the resurrection if Jesus’ body was still in the tomb. In his massive tome The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright shows that the Jewish concept of resurrection was a that of a physical, bodily resurrection. Your body was an essential part of you in Jewish thought. Someone could not be raised from the dead if their body was still dead in the ground: the best that could happen to you in that case was your spirit being assumed into heaven, to await the resurrection that would happen in the end times.
So the disciples of Jesus, all of them Jews, would not have believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead if his corpse was still kicking around. And no one else would have believed them when they started preaching. Since the location of the tomb was known, it is highly implausible that no one would have gone to check it out. Even if the corpse was decayed beyond recognition, the claim that it was Jesus’ corpse would have been eminently believable – it was in his tomb, after all, and a number of features would have still been identifiable (sex, height, crucifixion wounds).
If the location of the tomb was known, the Jewish authorities would have used it to refute the resurrection claim if they could have. They were understandably concerned about the Christian movement, as we see in Acts and as is testified by the apostle Paul – just as they were concerned about Jesus himself, enough to have him crucified. But there is no record of a dispute about whether or not the tomb was empty, or about the identification of Jesus’ remains. Instead, we have a dispute about whether or not the body had been stolen! (More on that in a moment.)
So the fact that Jesus was buried in a known location provides good support for the empty tomb.
Second, the empty tomb account is itself fairly well-established. We have many of the same early, independent sources for the empty tomb account as we have for the burial account, including the passion narrative in Mark and the account in John. (This is hardly surprising, since the early Christians were not likely to circulate a story that ended with Jesus in the tomb.) Moreover, the parallels between Mark’s passion narrative, the apostolic sermons in Acts, and the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15, combined with the Jewish concept of the resurrection as a bodily resurrection, mean that the empty tomb is implicit in the latter two sources. The mention of his burial in conjunction with his resurrection would entail that the tomb did not remain occupied.
There are a couple other features of the empty tomb account in Mark that further supports its historical reliability. For one, it completely lacks the kind of legendary embellishment that we would expect to see if it was a later invention. Mark’s empty tomb account is fairly matter-of-fact, particularly when compared to the empty tomb stories in something like the Gospel of Peter. (William Lane Craig uses this as an example of what real legendary development looks like in this episode of his Defenders class. It’s quite entertaining, actually.)
For another, the phrase “the first day of the week” that occurs in Mark 16:2 is reflective of a very early tradition. If the empty tomb account was a later invention, it almost certainly would have used the more prevalent “third day” motif instead, which was already present in the early Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15. And the “first day of the week” phrase probably represents a translation from Aramaic, the disciples’ native language: it is rendered awkwardly in Greek (like saying “the one of the Sabbath”) while it is a natural idiom in Aramaic.
So the empty tomb account is well-established by early sources.
Third, the identity of the ones who first witnessed the empty tomb provides an interesting indicator of its historicity: namely, Gospels report that the tomb was first discovered empty by women. This is relevant because women were not considered to be reliable witnesses in ancient Jewish and Roman cultures. So had the Gospel writers (or earlier traditions that the Gospels were based on) invented the empty tomb narrative, they would have given the discovery to witnesses their audience would have considered more notable and trustworthy.
Fourth, the earliest Jewish objection to the claims about Jesus’ resurrection presupposes the empty tomb. Matthew’s Gospel, in the account of the guard at the tomb, reports that the Jewish authorities accused the disciples of having stolen the body, and that this story continued to be circulated at the time when Matthew’s Gospel was written.
The account of the guard at the tomb is not accepted as historical by many scholars, though there are some indications of its historicity. (For example, it contains some language that is unusual for Matthew, suggesting prior tradition.) But even if it were an invention, the most likely rationale for inventing it implies that the tomb was empty. Namely, the story of the guard would only have been invented in response to the Jewish accusation that the disciples stole the body: and that accusation would only have arisen if the tomb was indeed unoccupied.
In other words, the account of the guard at the tomb shows a history of developing assertions and counter-assertions that likely stretches back to the earliest time of Christianity:
- First, the Christians proclaim: “He is risen!”
- Then, the Jews respond: “No he’s not! The disciples merely stole his body!” (Note that they didn’t say: “No he’s not! Look at the corpse in his tomb!”)
- The Christians: “The disciples couldn’t have stolen the body, there was a guard at the tomb.”
- The Jews: “No, the guards fell asleep.” (Note that they didn’t say: “What guard?”)
- The Christians: “No, the chief priests bribed the guards to say that!”
And since Matthew writes that the accusation against the disciples had been spread among the Jews to time of writing his Gospel, it is reasonable to believe that he was responding to what was actually being said. Otherwise his audience would have said “What empty tomb? This is news to me.” or “Well, I’ve never heard this story that you claim has been spread among the Jews to this day.” If Matthew was lying, it was a lame lie and easily falsified. But as far as we know, no one came out and falsified it.
So we have good reason to accept that the earliest Jewish response to Christianity presupposed the empty tomb – even if Matthew’s account about the guards is an invention.
For the above reasons, the majority of New Testament scholars accept the historicity of the empty tomb. Which means we can be reasonably certain, as a matter of historical fact, that Jesus was crucified and buried, and that his tomb was found empty two days later.
In my next post, I will continue to explore the evidence surrounding the origin of the Christian faith by looking at the claimed resurrection appearances of Jesus.
While all of the arguments for God’s existence that I have explored so far combine to give us a powerful concept of God, as I said in my last post, they still leave the precise identity of God unknown. But I believe we can know, with even greater specificity, who God is, for he has revealed himself by entering into human history in a unique way.
My contention in this series of posts will be that there is sufficient historical evidence to know that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, and that because of this, it is reasonable to believe in what Jesus taught and proclaimed. This I call the historical argument for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, but it may also be called the argument from the resurrection.
The basic starting point for this argument is the existence of the Christian faith and certain writings of the New Testament. This argument does not begin by assuming that the writings of the New Testament are scripture and therefore authoritative. Rather, it investigates these writings as one would investigate any other historical documents, and looks for the best explanation for why they exist, why they say what they do, and how the religion of Christianity began.
Overview of the Evidence
There is abundant evidence tracing Christian beliefs back into the first century. Among these key beliefs, of course, are that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person who had a following of disciples, that he was crucified and raised from the dead by God, that he was in fact God incarnate, that after the resurrection his disciples proclaimed that they had seen him, and that they preached the hope of eternal life for those who put their faith in him.
The most obvious examples of the presence of such beliefs in ancient times are the writings which became the New Testament. But we also have abundant writings from early church fathers in the second and third centuries, which quote the New Testament and affirm the same beliefs, for example:
- Ignatius of Antioch (50 – 117 CE)
- Polycarp of Smyrna (69 – 155 CE)
- Justin Martyr (100 – 165 CE)
- Irenaeus of Lyons (130 – 202 CE)
- Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215 CE)
- Tertullian (150 – 225 CE)
- Hippolytus of Rome (170 – 235 CE)
(The list of church fathers here is taken from this blog post on Stand to Reason.) Some of these men, such as Ignatius and Polycarp, personally knew the apostles, and their writings attest to the origin of Christianity.
From non-Christian sources, there is clear evidence for the existence of Christianity and for Jesus as a historical figure in the histories written by Josephus and Tacitus. There are a number of references to Christianity in other sources, such as the writings of Pliny the Younger, the Roman Emperor Trajan, and Lucian of Samosata, to name a few. Archeological evidence is present for early Christian beliefs as well. Two examples are a mosaic dated to around 230 CE in a third century church which describes Jesus as God, and a piece of Roman graffiti from around 200 CE mocking someone for worshipping a person who was crucified.
As for the New Testament writings themselves, we have enough ancient copies and quotations of them that we can reconstruct what the originals said with 99.5% accuracy. (See here for some information about the textual reliability of the New Testament.) It is also fairly clear that they were, at least for the most part, completed by the end of the first century. The earliest manuscript fragments that we have for the Gospels of John, for example, dates to the middle of the second century. Critical scholars typically date the Gospels to between the 70s and 90s at the latest – and I find there are good reasons to believe they were produced even earlier, from the 40s or 50s to the 60s.
From what I have seen, the arguments for later dates for the Gospels ignore the internal evidence for who wrote them and when they were written (that is, what the text themselves and other early Christian writings say about them), in favour of presuppositions against the supernatural (such as, Jesus’s prophecy of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem could not have been genuine). Since what we are investigating is whether something supernatural happened in the life and death of Jesus, an anti-supernatural presupposition is simply begging the question, and the earlier dates for the Gospels are a live possibility.
But even the later dates for the Gospels are fairly close chronologically to the events they describe, compared to many other ancient sources. This is a very significant point in favour of their historical reliability, since there simply was not enough time for the development of legends. People who remembered the events, or who had been told about the events by those who had experienced them, would have still been around to check the veracity of what was being written.
Further to that, we have other important indications of historical reliability: including evidence that the Gospel accounts are based on eyewitness testimony, the presence of what are called undesigned coincidences in the texts, archeological evidence showing that the accounts get the historical details correct, and more.
Probably the most significant objection to the historical reliability of the Gospels are the supposed contradictions between them. But the vast majority of these can either be easily harmonized, or understood as instances of narrative flexibility. That is to say, if the Gospel writers chose for example to narrate events out of chronological order in order to emphasize certain themes, or to simplify details for the sake of brevity, this is not a mark against their historical reliability. The accounts can still present a faithful portrait of what really happened according to literary standards of that time period.
In addition to the Gospels (and the book of Acts, which is closely tied to the Gospel of Luke), we also find important historical information in the letters of the apostle Paul. These were composed from the mid 40s to the mid 60s in the first century. Though a few are contested, scholars are almost unanimous in accepting seven of the New Testament epistles as authentic letters written by the historical apostle Paul in this time period.
For further reasons to accept the historical reliability of the New Testament, Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and Eddy and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend are all good resources.
Overall, the New Testament writings have every appearance of being generally historically reliable. Setting aside for the moment the question of whether the supernatural elements of these narratives should be taken at face value, it is reasonable to take the accounts of the Gospels and Acts as genuine reports of what people in the mid-first century believed to have happened in the life of Jesus and the origin of the Christian church.
Of course, this does not by itself prove that Jesus rose from the dead, but it does provide substantial evidence that Christianity began as Christians have always said: with Jesus appearing risen from the dead to his disciples after he had been crucified, and an empty tomb where his body had been laid. In the next few posts, I will explore the evidence for some specific facts in greater detail:
- Jesus was crucified.
- His body was buried.
- His tomb was found empty.
- The disciples claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected, and they believed it.
- Paul, persecutor of the early church, was radically changed and became its foremost apostle.
- James, skeptical brother of Jesus, became a believer and a leader in the church.
- Before his death, Jesus claimed to have a unique relationship with God.
Then I will explore the possibilities for how these facts may be explained.
Over the past few months I have explored a number of different arguments for the existence of God. In other words, I have been exploring the area of philosophy known as natural theology, reasons to believe in God apart from any religious claims of special revelation. Before I move on, I want to summarize what I have covered so far.
The Epistemological Argument
We can know that God exists, or at least be justified in believing in him, on the basis of religious experience.
- The principle of critical trust is valid.
- Theistic experiences are a well-established type of experience.
- Defeaters of theistic experiences are not successful.
- Therefore, theistic experiences may justify belief in God.
This gives us the impetus to explore the existence of God through further arguments.
The Cosmological Argument
God is the best explanation for the origin and contingent existence of the universe. In terms of the origin of the universe:
- Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe has a cause.
In terms of the existence of the universe:
- Everything that exists contingently has a cause.
- The universe exists contingently.
- Therefore, the universe has a cause.
These arguments are primarily based on the principle of sufficient reason, which I find to be a principle necessary for scientific inquiry and rational thought. This is combined with a further premise based on an analysis of what a cause of the universe most plausibly is like:
- If the universe has a cause, then God exists.
- Therefore, God exists.
I think the first two premises of each of these arguments are rationally compelling, while the third premise is quite plausible – especially when combined with the next argument.
The Teleological Argument
God is the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe for life.
- The universe is fine-tuned.
- If the universe is fine-tuned, this is explained either by necessity, chance, or design.
- The fine-tuning is not explained by necessity or chance.
- If the fine-tuning is explained by design, then God exists.
- Therefore, God exists.
The first premise is justified by the extraordinary evidence for fine-tuning from physics and cosmology, and the second premise simply lists the available options for how it is to be explained. The third premise is justified by the inadequacy of the necessity and chance hypotheses, including the multiverse hypothesis, relative to the design hypothesis. And the fourth premise is justified by an inference to the best explanation for what the designer of the universe must be like.
The Noetic Argument
God is the best explanation for the existence of consciousness.
- Consciousness exists and is correlated with certain physical phenomena.
- If consciousness exists and is thus correlated, it either has a natural scientific explanation or a theistic explanation.
- It does not have a natural scientific explanation.
- Therefore, consciousness has a theistic explanation, and so God exists.
The first premise comes from our conscious experience. The second premise is justified by abductive inferences to what the best natural and supernatural explanations for consciousness must be like. The third premise is justified by philosophical reasoning that mental phenomena cannot be physical, the failure of reductive physicalist accounts of mental phenomena, and the explanatory shortcomings of non-reductive physicalist accounts (namely, they are highly ad-hoc within the framework of naturalism).
The Axiological Argument
This argument is really six arguments in one. God is the best explanation for the objectivity of moral, rational, and aesthetic values and duties, and God is the best explanation of our knowledge of those values and duties.
- Moral, rational, and aesthetic values and duties are objective, and we have knowledge of these values and duties.
- If God does not exist, then these values and duties are not objective, or at least we cannot have knowledge of them.
- Therefore, God exists.
The first premise is justified by our powerful moral, rational, and aesthetic intuitions. The second premise is justified by an inference to the best explanation for how such objective values could be grounded in reality, and how we could come to know them.
The Ontological Argument
Finally, it can be reasoned that the very concept of God implies that he exists. This is a valid argument in modal logic:
- Possibly, God exists.
- Necessarily, if God exists, he exists necessarily.
- Therefore, God exists.
The first premise is justified by the conceptual coherence of God, and the second premise is part of the concept of what God is like. Moreover, a somewhat more complex ontological argument allows us to infer the existence of God as a perfect being, having properties such as omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection.
Who Is God?
All of these arguments can reasonably be combined into a cumulative case for the existence of God. For example, if the cosmological argument reveals a cause of the universe, and the teleological argument reveals a designer of the universe, Occam’s razor recommends the hypothesis that these are the same being. So natural theology reveals a God who is:
- Necessarily existing
- Transcending space
- The creator and designer of the universe
- The ground of objective values and duties
- Perfectly good
- Perfectly rational
- The paradigm of beauty and worth
- The unique greatest possible being
This is a very strong concept of who God is. I believe that these arguments from natural theology rule out naturalism, as well as polytheistic, pantheistic, and panentheistic conceptions of God. (Though I will not be fully justified in making this claim until I respond to objections to belief in God.) But all this still leaves the precise identity of God unknown.
The reasoning of my epistemological argument allows that we can come to a more specific knowledge of God’s identity through religious experiences. While I believe this is valid, it is good to have another source of confirmation, since religious experiences are not fully reliable. So in my next post, I will begin exploring some historical evidence for the precise identity of God.
In my last post I presented a simple ontological argument for the existence of God. In this post, I want to explore a somewhat more complex variant of the ontological argument. This one actually has its roots in the work of mathematician Kurt Gödel. Philosophers since (such as C. Anthony Anderson, Robert Maydole, and Alexander Pruss) have improved on his argument and brought it to what I think is a quite powerful form.
This is going to be a long post, but there’s no real point in breaking it up, so here we go.
I will refer to my own presentation of this argument (which closely follows the argument by Pruss in this paper) as the perfect being argument. The perfect being argument is formulated using a higher-order modal logic: it requires the combination of modal logic with a predicate logic that can quantify over, and apply predicates to, not only the objects of the theory in question, but also the properties of those objects.
As far as that goes, I believe there is room for more work than what presently appears in the philosophical literature. I wrote in an earlier post that I think the correct way to combine modal logic with predicate logic is by using intensional logic. So, I have written up an introduction to the higher-order version of Belnap and Müller’s case-intensional logic in this document, and I will use this logic to present the perfect being argument.
This blog post will describe the definitions and concepts necessary for the perfect being argument, and argue for the premises. See this second attached document for the logical deduction of the argument’s conclusion from the premises.
The concept which is at the center of the perfect being argument is that of Positive properties. There are a few different ways of understanding what a positive property is:
- A property which is intrinsically better to have than not, or any property entailed by such properties.
- A property which in no way reduces the possessor’s greatness (or excellence, or value), but whose negation does reduce greatness (or excellence, or value).
- A property which entails no limitation in its possessor, but whose negation does entail limitation.
We can also understand positive properties by starting from the other direction. Begin with the concept of a negative property as one which entails limitation or reduction of greatness in its possessor, and define a positive property as the negation of a negative property. This may help make the concept of a positive property more intuitive.
The key premises of the perfect being argument are these two axioms about positive properties:
Axiom F1: If a property is positive, its negation is not positive.
Axiom F2: If a positive property A strictly entails a property B, then B is also positive.
Here, “property A strictly entails property B” means that necessarily, i.e. in every possible world, everything that has A also has B. In other words, strict entailment is necessary material implication from having A to having B.
So this is an intensional form of implication, having to do with the structure of metaphysical possibility and necessity. It is not extensional implication (which would just be truth-functional material implication), nor is it hyperintensional implication (the strongest form of implication, having to do with the semantic and logical meaning of the propositions involved). I mention that because it becomes relevant in response to an objection to the perfect being argument, which I will address later.
Axioms F1 and F2 will allow me to demonstrate i) that given any positive property A, it is possible for there to be something that has A, and ii) that given any two positive properties A and B, it is possible for there to be something that has both A and B. To see how, you’ll have to take a look at the attached document. (It has to do with the fact that an impossible property entails all properties, similar to how in classical logic a contradiction implies that every proposition is true.)
Consider the view of positive properties as those which do not entail limitation but whose negations do entail limitation. Then F1 and F2 are pretty obviously true:
- If a property is positive, its negation entails limitation, which means the negation is not positive.
- If a property A is positive, it entails no limitation, which means that any property B it entails also cannot entail limitation (otherwise the first property would entail limitation after all).
- On the other hand, if A entails B, the negation of B entails the negation of A, by contraposition. Since the negation of A entails limitation, so does the negation of B, since entailment is transitive. So B entails no limitation but its negation does, meaning that B is positive.
The truth of F1 and F2 can be similarly supported using the other interpretations of what it means to be a positive property.
These axioms do have what some may find to be a counterintuitive result. Suppose that knowing that 2+2=4 is a positive property, while being cruel is not. F2 implies that the property of either knowing that 2+2=4 or being cruel (or both) is also positive.
I find that this result is less strange if you consider positive properties as the negations of negative properties, with negative properties being those that entail any kind of limitation (or reduction of greatness or value or excellence). If framed in terms of negative properties, premises F1 and F2 read as follows:
Axiom F1’: If a property is negative, then its negation is not negative.
Axiom F2’: If a property A strictly entails a negative property B, then A is also negative.
(Note the difference between F2 and F2’.)
F2’ follows directly from the fact that entailment is transitive and properties which entail limitations are negative, and F1’ simply means that limitations can be avoided by not having those properties which entail limitations.
Negating the above example, if not knowing that 2+2=4 is negative while not being cruel is not, F2’ implies that not knowing that 2+2=4 and not being cruel is negative – which makes sense, because it implies the limitation of not knowing a piece of basic arithmetic, no matter what good it says about one’s moral character. But then the negation of this property, either knowing that 2+2=4 or being cruel (or both), is positive by definition.
Graham Oppy has made the suggestion that we can expand axiom F2 to the following: if a property B is strictly entailed by the conjunction of a set of positive properties, then B is positive. (Framed in terms of negative properties, this would be: if a property A strictly entails the disjunction of a set of negative properties, then A is negative.) I think this axiom is quite elegant, but I only need Pruss’s weaker version of F2. So that is what I will use.
The conception of positive properties which I have laid out above has us envision the space of properties as divided into three categories:
- Positive properties, which do not entail any limitation but whose negations do,
- Negative properties, which entail limitation and are the negations of positive properties, and
- Indifferent properties, which are neither positive nor negative.
(An indifferent property and its negation, which is also indifferent, are both consistent both with being limited and not being limited. These descriptions can be translated to the other ways of interpreting positive and negative properties.)
I think it is interesting to note the relationships of entailment between these categories (this is just to help think about the concept of positive and negative properties):
- Positive properties entail only positive properties, and may be entailed by positive, indifferent, or negative properties.
- Negative properties are only entailed by negative properties, but may entail negative, positive, or indifferent properties.
- Indifferent properties may entail indifferent or positive properties, and may be entailed by indifferent or negative properties.
Now, I will add one further axiom about positive properties:
Axiom F3: If a property is positive, it is necessarily positive.
In other words, whether a property is positive, negative, or indifferent is not based on the contingent structure of the world: it is an objective and necessary feature intrinsic to that property. This seems an entirely reasonable condition.
Now in the next section, I will present some specific properties that I think we can take as positive.
Some Specific Positive Properties
What properties might we say are positive, if being positive is to be interpreted in the ways suggested above?
One such group of properties might be abilities, powers, strengths, and so on. The ability to cause things in the world to go the way you want them to go. The ability to create new things. I think it is reasonable to say that these are positive.
Another positive property might be independence. Not being limited or constrained by dependence on environmental factors for your continued life and existence, or for your origin. This is the reason we build spacesuits, for example, to survive otherwise inhospitable situations: they help to circumvent our natural dependencies.
I think knowledge and rationality are very plausible to take as positive properties. These things are intrinsically valuable, expanding rather than limiting what one can do, while not having them is limiting.
Many people would say that moral virtue is positive. Great moral teachers have often said that true freedom from limitation is found in doing what is right. Vice, while it might feel good in the moment, is a snare, something that limits your options and is ultimately detrimental.
And if you follow Anselm and other medieval scholars in thinking that there is such a thing as objective greatness, then greatness itself is natural to take as a positive property.
If these properties are positive, I believe it is very reasonable to think that their perfections are positive: that it is positive to have these properties to the greatest possible degree. Thus, I suggest that the following perfections are positive.
The perfection of power and ability is Omnipotence: having the greatest possible ability to actualize states of affairs according to one’s will.
The perfection of independence is Aseity: self-existence, complete independence from external things, existing uncaused.
The above two perfections combine in what might be called Creative Aseity: being the creator and ultimate cause of everything outside of oneself.
The perfection of knowledge and rationality is Omniscience: knowing everything that is true and believing nothing that is false.
The perfection of moral virtue is Moral Perfection: being perfectly just and perfectly loving.
The perfection of greatness is Supremacy: being the greatest possible being, with no rival.
Strongly Positive Properties
When a property is part of the essence of what a thing is – if a thing could not exist or be the kind of thing that it is without having that property – we say that it has that property Essentially.
Let us say that a property is Strongly Positive when it is positive to have that property essentially. Since everything that essentially has a property has that property, strongly positive properties are themselves positive by Axiom F2.
I think the perfections above are not only positive, but strongly positive. I see Essential Omnipotence, Essential Omniscience, and Essential Moral Perfection as not implying limitation in any way, while their negations do entail limitation in some form.
Moreover, it plausible that if something has Aseity, it automatically has it essentially (it is hard to see how something that is caused to exist could be the same thing, or even the same kind of thing, as something that exists uncaused). The same goes for Creative Aseity: being the creator of everything else implies essentially being the creator of everything else, given the principle of sufficient reason. And a good case can be made that being essentially supreme is included of the concept of Supremacy.
Let us say that a property is Superlative if it can be held by at most one entity. For example, being the tallest person is a superlative property. At least some of the above perfections are superlative.
It is very reasonable to think that at most one being can be Omnipotent: if there were more than one omnipotent being, they could will to actualize conflicting states of affairs, and then you would have a contradiction. Creative Aseity is also superlative: only one being can be the cause of everything outside of itself. And being unparalleled in greatness is reasonably taken to be part of Supremacy.
Going even further, I think it might be the case that Essential Moral Perfection is superlative, since (following the moral argument) it is related to being the standard of objective moral values, and there can only be one of those. And if Essential Omniscience is related to being the ground of reality and the standard of objective rationality, even that might be superlative as well, in a similar way.
There is one more property that I believe is positive: that is the property of Necessary Existence.
Using one of the given interpretations of a positive property: Necessary Existence does not seem to imply any kind of limitation, while its negation does: its negation either entails non-existence or it entails contingency, putting constraints on one’s existence either way. So Necessary Existence seems to satisfy the conditions for being positive on that interpretation. (And I think something similar can be said on the other interpretations.)
Furthermore, given the principle of sufficient reason, Necessary Existence is entailed by Aseity. One statement of the principle of sufficient reason is that anything that exists contingently must have a cause: so if something is exists uncaused, it must exist necessarily. By Axiom F2, since Aseity is positive, so is Necessary Existence.
And if Necessary Existence is a great-making property as I suggested in the previous post, it should also be entailed by Supremacy. So that is another positive property that may entail Necessary Existence, supporting the belief that it is positive.
The Perfect Being Argument
One last definition. Let us say that a Perfect Being is something that has every strongly positive property essentially. Then, after all of that preamble, the perfect being argument goes as follows:
- Axiom F1: If a property is positive, its negation is not positive.
- Axiom F2: If a positive property A strictly entails a property B, then B is also positive.
- Axiom F3: If a property is positive, it is necessarily positive.
- Premise N1: Necessary existence is positive.
- Premise N2: There is at least one superlative strongly positive property.
- Conclusion: Necessarily, there exists a unique perfect being.
We can add one more important premise and conclusion:
- Premise N3: Omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection, supremacy, and creative aseity are strongly positive.
- Conclusion: Necessarily, a perfect being is essentially omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, supreme, and the creator of all things.
This perfect being, I suggest, is what everyone would call God.
(Note: we can also conclude that for every positive property, it is possible for the perfect being to have that property. And indeed, if all positive properties are jointly consistent, as would be implied by Oppy’s stronger version of F2, it is possible for the perfect being to have every positive property at the same time.)
See the attached document for details, but here is a rough sketch of how the argument works.
- F1 and F2 imply that any two positive properties are possibly co-instantiated.
- Apply that lemma to necessary existence and the superlative strongly positive property (call it U). Then there is something that necessarily exists and essentially has U.
- Thus, in every possible world, this being exists, has U, and is the only being that has U, since U is superlative.
- Apply the lemma again to any strongly positive property (call it A) and U. Then it is possible that there is something that has U and also has A essentially.
- But this is the same being as before, because it has U. So it also necessarily has A. The conclusion follows by universal generalization over A.
I have explained the intuitions inclining me to accept Axioms F1 to F3 and Premises N1 to N3 in the above sections. The argument is logically valid, and I believe the underlying logic itself is correct. (At least, this case-intensional logic is the higher-order modal logic that seems most natural to me.)
Moreover, my acceptance of the premises is not due to my belief that God exists, or even specifically in my belief that it is possible for God to exist. At most, it is due to my consideration of certain properties which are part of the concept of God, which seem to me to be logically coherent and to meet the criteria for being positive in the ways described above. So I am not reasoning in a circle here.
Thus, I find the perfect being argument to be a sound argument for the existence of God. Even more than that, it strengthens our concept of God, giving us reason to believe that the being revealed by all the other arguments for God’s existence is a perfect being, having no essential limitations – Anselm’s greatest conceivable being.
Objections to the Perfect Being Argument
Philosopher Graham Oppy has raised a couple different objections to this kind of ontological argument. One of his objections is that it is highly counterintuitive for properties like either knowing that 2+2=4 or being cruel (or both) to be positive. But, I believe this intuitive difficulty can be removed by understanding positive properties as the negations of negative ones, as I explained earlier in this post. Oppy’s other objections deal with ways the perfect being argument may be parodied.
Suppose there were a different set of properties – let’s call them shmositive properties instead of positive ones – which satisfied Axioms F1 to F3. If necessary existence is shmositive and there is at least one shmositive property incompatible with the concept of God (for example, if being morally evil is shmositive), then we could form an argument along the same lines as the perfect being argument, but with a disturbing theological implication – the existence of a necessary being different from God.
However, such a parody would only be threatening if we actually had reason to think that there were such things as shmositive properties, and the intuitions supporting our beliefs about shmositive properties were stronger than the intuitions supporting our beliefs about positive properties. Because with the perfect being argument, our intuitions about positive properties imply the existence of God, one of whose properties entails that he is the only uncaused, completely independent being. And this gives us a reason to think that shmositive properties do not in fact exist.
Oppy suggests a different and slightly more sophisticated parody. Say a naturalistic property is one which does not entail the existence of any supernatural being, while its negation does entail the existence of a supernatural being. Then we can plausibly formulate these two axioms:
Axiom F1*: If a property is naturalistic, its negation is not naturalistic.
Axiom F2*: If a naturalistic property A strictly entails a property B, then B is also naturalistic.
(Oppy calls these natural properties, but they are better described as naturalistic.)
Then Oppy proposes the following as a naturalistic property: not existing alongside a necessarily existent, omnipotent, omniscient (and so on and so forth) being. But (if the parody works) then F1* and F2* imply that something possibly instantiates this property, which implies that it is possible for God to not exist, which (if God is a necessary being) implies that God does not exist at all.
Pruss, in the paper linked at the beginning of this post, responds that Oppy’s parody is inferior to the perfect being argument. For one, the notion of a naturalistic property is highly contrived, much more so than the notion of a positive or negative property. This is evident in that whether a property is naturalistic or not tells you nothing about the attributes it confers to its possessors. The proposed naturalistic property, for example, is defined extrinsically and really tells you nothing about the entity that instantiates it.
Most properties that we commonly think about, and on which we base our intuitions, are understood in an intrinsic way and tell us something about the entity which has them. Oppy’s naturalistic properties are not like that. This makes them liable to behave in unintuitive ways, lessening our confidence in Axioms F1* and F2*.
We can also ask whether the proposed naturalistic property, not existing alongside a necessarily existent, omnipotent, omniscient being, is intended to be existence-implying or not. (As in, whether something must exist in order to be said to have this property.) If it is, then F2* implies that mere existence is also naturalistic. But existence clearly does not satisfy the definition of a naturalistic property (otherwise, the non-existence of anything would imply the existence of a supernatural being!), so this results in an absurdity.
Thus, the proposed naturalistic property must not be existence-implying. This is a further strike against it, since we do not commonly reason about such non-attributive properties which may apply even to non-existence. Again, this makes them liable to behave in unintuitive ways, further lessening our confidence in F1* and F2*.
We can go on to ask the question of whether something can fulfill the property not existing alongside a necessarily existent, omnipotent, omniscient being simply by not existing. If it can, this property doesn’t actually say anything about whether or not a supernatural being exists, and so is not naturalistic. If it cannot, this property should actually be construed simply as the property that there does not exist a necessarily existent, omnipotent, omniscient being (clearly a property which is defined completely extrinsically and which entails nothing, not even the existence, of whatever entity has it).
At this point, you might be asking why I think the unusual nature of this naturalistic property is relevant. Doesn’t it still clearly satisfy the definition of a naturalistic property? And doesn’t the definition of a naturalistic property clearly support the truth of Axioms F1* and F2*?
The answer to these questions would be yes – if we were working in a hyperintensional logic, where logical entailment depends on the semantic meaning of the statements and properties involved, and nothing else. (By way of contrast, in an intensional logic, strict entailment depends on metaphysically necessary co-instantiation.) But as of yet, there is no rigorous system of hyperintensional logic. Such a system would probably not support the crucial lemma of the perfect being argument (or its parodies) even if we did have one, since it would not follow the behaviour of classical logic in all cases. And arguably, an intensional logic is the appropriate one to be working with for reasoning about metaphysical modality.
In conclusion, when working in an intensional logic, the premises of Oppy’s parody are clearly less intuitive and more contrived than those of the perfect being argument. Hence, I maintain that the perfect being argument is better justified than the parody, and so the parody fails to defeat it.
In a hyperintensional logic, further premises (having to do with metaphysical possibility and necessity) would be required for either argument – and it seems very unlikely to me that the premises required for the parody would be any more plausible than those required for the ontological argument proper, especially if something like the causal account of modality is correct.
So, there you go. Grant some assumptions, I think reasonable ones, about the nature of perfection and about certain intrinsically valuable properties, and you can prove logically that God exists and has the properties of maximal greatness that are traditionally assigned to him.
Is this argument rationally compelling? Well, an atheist can always reject one or more of the premises, or question the underlying logic. But personally, I think this argument is a good one: it is valid and its premises are more plausible than not. So it lends at least some justification for belief in the existence of God.
Moreover, it strengthens our concept of God. It gives us a principled reason to go from the merely very powerful and intelligent being revealed by the cosmological and teleological arguments, to the fully omnipotent and omniscient God of traditional theistic belief. For this reason, I think the ontological argument is a useful complement to the other arguments of natural theology.
In the eleventh century, the bishop Anselm of Canterbury proposed that we can infer that God exists directly from an understanding of the concept of God. Anselm suggested that we should understand God as the greatest conceivable being, and that since something is greater if it exists than if it does not, this implies that God exists.
(If that seems like a bit of a leap, I’ll come back to it momentarily.)
Since then, this kind of argument has generated a great deal of philosophical discussion. Arguments for God’s existence that begin with just the concept of God, or more generally that begin with only a priori principles, have come to be known as ontological arguments. In addition to Anselm, there have been famous ontological arguments from thinkers such as Rene Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, Kurt Gödel, and Alvin Plantinga. These arguments are the closest we get to proving that God exists through pure logic.
I think it is interesting to look at Anselm’s argument, so I will explore it briefly. (Mainly because my description of it earlier may have left you thinking “um, what?”) But it is a little convoluted, and I don’t think the argument is actually sound. So after doing that, I will present a contemporary version of the ontological argument, which I believe is sound and which captures the essence of the argument most simply.
Anselm’s ontological argument relies on a concept of objective greatness that medieval philosophers often held: the idea that some properties increased the greatness of a being, and the more of these great-making properties that a being has, the greater it is. Anselm, and others, believed that existence itself was one of these great-making properties.
We can state Anselm’s argument in this way:
- The concept of the greatest conceivable being, that than which it is not conceivable for something to be greater, can be understood.
- If the concept of something can be understood, then it is conceivable for that thing to exist (i.e. to have the property of existence).
- Existence is a great-making property.
- If something lacks a great-making property but it is conceivable for it to have that property, then it is conceivable for there to be something else greater than that thing (i.e. by being like the first thing, but having the great-making property that it lacks).
- It is not conceivable for there to be something greater than that than which it is not conceivable for something to be greater.
- Therefore, the greatest conceivable being exists.
The proof is actually pretty straightforward:
- Since the concept of the greatest conceivable being can be understood, it is conceivable for the greatest conceivable being to exist. (From premises 1 and 2).
- Now assume that the greatest conceivable being does not exist.
- It follows that it is conceivable for there to be something that is greater than the greatest conceivable being. (From premises 3 and 4, and the above two statements.)
- This is a contradiction. (From premise 5.)
- Therefore the assumption must be false: the greatest conceivable being exists. (Conclusion.)
All the premises seem pretty intuitive, so you may be able to understand why Anselm believed that the existence of God was just self-evident once you thought about it for a while. But it may still leave you wondering how on earth this argument can be sound.
For my part, I believe the argument ends up failing because premise 4 is false, at least if we try apply it to the property of existence. Here’s why.
The idea of premise 4 is that if something is lacking a great-making property, we can form a concept of something greater by augmenting the concept of the first thing with that great-making property. But every concept already includes the property of existence: we cannot conceive of something except by conceiving what it would be if indeed it were to exist. We cannot augment a concept with the property of existence, because all concepts presume it already.
So the intuition behind premise 4 is misconstrued, and if we understand it properly it actually supports a slightly different premise. Here is what I would say is true instead:
- If we have a concept of something without a great-making property, but we can also form a concept which is like the first but which includes that property, then it is conceivable for there to be something else greater than the first thing.
And this new premise cannot be used to generate the proof by contradiction needed in Anselm’s argument.
The Simplest Ontological Argument
There is a much simpler ontological argument which we can use to infer that God exists. The key insight of this argument is that it is not existence per se which is the relevant property included in the concept of God, since existence is included by default in the concept of every conceivable entity. Rather, the relevant property is necessary existence.
The cosmological and axiological arguments already suggest that God is not the kind of being whose existence depends on anything, who both could exist and also could have not existed. As humans we are familiar with contingent existence: there are innumerable factors that could have prevented our own existence. But God is not like that. If God exists, he exists necessarily.
Here is the argument:
- It is possible that God exists.
- Necessarily, if God exists, then he exists necessarily.
- Therefore, God exists.
There are a couple of important things to note about this argument. First, the kind of possibility and necessity that the premises refer to is metaphysical, not epistemic. So the first premise does not just mean that, for all we know, God might exist. It is a much stronger claim than that: it is the claim that reality is such that it allows for God’s existence. This is not referring to a subjective possibility arising from the limits of our knowledge, but an objective possibility arising from the nature of reality.
Second, the premises of this argument only lead to its conclusion if the possibility and necessity operators follow the rules of S5 modal logic. Now, I believe (as I have written in an earlier post) that the S5 rules are the correct ones to use for metaphysical modality. I’ll just briefly reiterate what those rules are:
- If something is true, then it is possible.
- If something is possible, then it is not possible for it to not be possible.
Both of these rules make complete sense for an absolute, objective concept of possibility – a concept of what would be possible no matter what is actual, or of what is possible based only on the fundamental structure of reality. So I find these rules are appropriate for reasoning about metaphysical possibility.
Note: the second rule here may be replaced with the two rules that i) if something is possibly possible, then it is possible, and ii) if something is true, then it is not possible for it to not be possible. (No matter how else things could have happened, what actually did happen would have been a way things could have happened.) I find these alternative rules to be just as intuitive.
With that being said, here is how the argument works:
- Since it is possible that God exists and it is necessarily the case that if he exists, he exists necessarily, this conjunction is possible: God exists and if he exists, he exists necessarily.
- This means it is possible that it is necessarily the case that God exists.
- Since necessarily true is the same as not possibly false, it is possible that it is not possible that God does not exist. Let A stand for “God does not exist.” So, possibly not possibly A.
- By the rules of S5 modal logic, if possibly A, then not possibly not possibly A.
- But since it is the case that possibly not possibly A, it must not be the case that possibly A. So, not possibly A.
- Again by the above rules, if A, then possibly A.
- But since it is not the case that possibly A, it must not be the case that A.
- In other words, it is not the case that God does not exist. Therefore, God exists.
This shows that the argument is logically valid. (Indeed, from these premises we can conclude not only that God exists, but that he exists necessarily.) So all we need to do now is explore the truth of the premises.
The First Premise
The premise that God’s existence is possible receives at least some support from the fact that his existence is conceivable. In other words, the concept of God is logically coherent, we can understand this concept and conceive that he exists, and conceivability is appropriately taken as a guide to possibility. This does not deductively prove that God’s existence is possible, but it lends some justification for believing so.
Leibniz argued for the possibility of God along these same lines, as follows:
- If the essential properties of something are consistent, then it possibly exists.
- All the essential properties of God are perfections.
- All perfections are consistent.
- Therefore, God possibly exists.
Leibniz defined a perfection as a property which is simple (not analyzable into other qualities), positive (not expressing the negation of a quality), and absolute (expressing what it does with no limitations). He argued that all perfections are consistent because there are no self-evident contradictions between any of them, and they cannot be shown to be contradictory because they are simple and express no negation or limitation. This seems fairly reasonable to me.
The atheist might raise the objection that the concept of God is not coherent. This is an argument that I will address in more detail in a future post, but I don’t find that any supposed contradiction in the concept of God can actually be sustained, when properly understood.
The easier objection is to say that if conceivability supports the possibility of God’s existence, then it also supports the possibility of his non-existence. And if it is possible that God does not exist, then either the second premise of the ontological argument is false, or it is actually impossible for him to exist.
My response to this is that conceivability is asymmetric between existence and non-existence. Conceivability is a better guide to the possibility of something’s existence than it is to the possibility of its non-existence. When we think of something existing, that is a definite positive concept. But when we think of something not existing, it is more difficult to discern whether that is a definite negative concept (conceiving that God does not exist), or merely the absence of a positive concept (not conceiving that God exists). This asymmetry means the possibility of God’s existence is somewhat better justified than the possibility of his non-existence.
One further argument supporting the possibility of God’s existence is the evidence of theistic mystical experiences: direct experiences of God. Even if such experiences are not real, they at least appear to be so to their experiencers. Philosopher Alexander Pruss argues in this paper that we should accept the following principle: whatever appears to be the case (in an experiential way) is at least possible. Then theistic mystical experiences provide justification for belief in the possibility of God.
This argument further supports the first premise over the alternative that God’s existence is not possible, since you cannot have an experience of the non-existence of something. (You can only have the absence of an experience of something.)
The Second Premise
The only other premise of the ontological argument, that necessarily, God exists necessarily if at all, is really just a claim about the concept or essential nature of God. The cosmological and axiological arguments highlight that necessary existence is part of the concept of God. Powerful experiences of God often leave the experiencer with a sense that all creation is radically dependent on God, and that God himself is not dependent on anything. This suggests necessary existence.
Building on Anselm, we can argue for this premise as follows:
- Necessary existence is a great-making property.
- It is conceivable for the greatest conceivable being to have necessary existence.
- If the essential properties of something do not include a great-making property that it is conceivable for it to have, then it is conceivable for there to be something greater than it.
- It is not conceivable for something to be greater than the greatest conceivable being.
- Therefore, necessary existence is an essential property of the greatest conceivable being. (Which, if we identify the greatest conceivable being with God, is synonymous with the second premise.)
Here is another way of reasoning that necessary existence should be part of the concept of God: as the greatest conceivable being, God is not the kind of being whose perfections can depend on any kind of contingency. But existence itself is a kind of perfection, and moreover, all of his perfections depend on his existing. So it is very plausible to include necessary existence in the concept of God. (This also implies that his perfections should be taken to be essential to him – God cannot fail to be God-like if he exists.)
The main way I have seen of objecting to this premise is to parody the ontological argument, by replacing God in the first and second premises with some other supposedly necessary being. Probably the strongest of these parodies postulate a God-like being which has necessary existence but which has a different set of essential properties from God (for example, lacking essential moral perfection). The parody would then show that this God-like being also existed necessarily, which most theologians would find to be an unacceptable consequence.
Such parodies, however, hinge on the modified premises being just as plausible as the original premises of the ontological argument. I don’t believe that they are. It seems to me that the property of necessary existence (at least for a concrete being, one who is not an abstract object) goes together with the other properties of God in such a way that separating them may even be incoherent. Essential moral perfection, for example, is tied up with necessary existence by God being the standard of moral values, as shown in the moral argument. A case could be made from the cosmological argument that necessary existence and omnipotence are bound together.
Moreover, we have independent grounds (the other arguments for God’s existence) for postulating the concept of God, and we do not have any such grounds for postulating the concept of a God-like being as needed for these parodies. Compared to the concept of God, these concepts are arbitrary and ad-hoc. So the premises of the ontological argument are at least somewhat better justified than the premises of its parodies.
Therefore God Exists
There is debate about whether the ontological argument provides justification for belief in God, or whether such arguments are able, even in principle, to provide justification for anything. Personally, I think that this simple ontological argument does provide at least some rational justification for belief in God: its premises are better justified than their negations, and better justified than the premises of various parody arguments.
At the very least, this argument clarifies the role that necessary existence plays in the concept of God. We cannot say both that it is possible for God to exist and possible for him to not exist: rather, either he exists necessarily or it is impossible for him to exist at all.
As I have alluded in previous posts, I believe the ontological argument can do better than that: it can strengthen and refine our concept of God even further. This is what Anselm was getting at when he said that God is the greatest conceivable being. In my next post, I will explore a different version of the ontological argument, one which reasons that a Perfect Being necessarily exists.